First-time writer & director Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre's feature-length film "The Mustang" is a tragedy that ends on a positive note. Sounds implausible, but you may disagree depending on your perspective. The last image in the film suggests something more than your usual man and horse story. This spartan, 97-minute indie film couldn't have gone mainstream because its protagonist, Roman Coleman (Belgian actor Matthias Schoenaerts of "Red Sparrow) amounts to more of a villain than a hero. With his shaved head and his biker's goatee, Coleman is an intimidating man of few words. This brawny loner is serving an 11-year sentence in the Northern Nevada Correctional Center for beating his wife's to within an inch of her life. Coleman slammed her head repeatedly against a sink in an uncontrollable rage of anger. She never recovered from this assault, and their daughter, Martha (Gideon Adlon of "Blockers"),grew up nursing her mother who is basically a vegetable. The mother cannot do anything as a result of the whipping. Clearly, Martha's parents needed anger management workshops. Everything we learn about their relationship points to their mutual immaturity. Now, Martha is really no better off since she is unwed and pregnant, and she isn't exactly sympathetic to her wife-beating father. The only reason she visits him in stir only is to get him to sign a release form so she can sell the house her grandmother left them.
Roman realizes now what he did the wrong. "I'm not good with people," he assures a prison psychologist (Connie Britton of "American Ultra") with little hope for the future. Sympathetic spectators may find this sufficient, but he isn't the kind of guy you would offer a ride to if he were hitch-hiking on the highway. Nevertheless, redemption isn't out of reach as Roman learns, despite the sentence that he received for domestic violence. While searching for a vocation in prison, Roman joins several convicts--who for no apparent reason--help a bad-tempered old horse wrangler, Myles (Bruce Dern of "The Cowboys"),who is stuck with a short span of time to domestic wild horses, and auction them off to various law-enforcement agencies, such as the Border Patrol and urban police departments. We learn early on in "The Mustang" that the Bureau of Land Management used helicopters to round up these wild horses on public lands in Utah.
Predictably, "The Mustang" focuses on the unruly relationship between Roman and his rebellious mustang. Incompatible accurately describes both man and horse. When Roman grows frustrated with trying to tame the mustang, the horse shows him who is boss. A classic "Cool Hand Luke" moment occurs about mid-point. Instead of the warden declaring a lack of communication, the horse asserts it when the animal knocks Roman on his butt. Finally, in desperation, since nothing else seems to succeed, Roman resorts to punching the horse with his fists. Metaphorically, this may have been comparable to what went amiss between Roman and his ill-fated wife. Myles has Roman barred from the program. At the same time, Clermont-Tonnerre develops the camaraderie between Roman and an African American wrangler.
If there is anything conventional about "The Mustang," it is the drug smuggling subplot with convicts stealing the horse tranquillizer Ketamine. This is the only instance where the traditional tropes of a 'big house' prison movie appears. Clermont-Tonnerre displays admirable restraint in her depiction of the subject matter. At no time does "The Mustang" degenerate into warm, feel-good sap. Neither does she fall back on syrupy clichés to make Roman a likeable hero. Nothing will whitewash Roman of his crime. Nevertheless, by the end of the film, Roman has grown somewhat in stature and become a better person that he was when we first met him. Frankly, grouchy old Bruce Dern still has what it takes to steal a movie, and his cantankerous performance adds depth to the straightforward narrative. Matthias Schoenaerts does more with less in his characterization. He lets his attitude, gestures, and looks supersede anything that he could verbalize. At no point, however, does Dern cross the line into self-parody. Mind you, despite that striking last image, "The Mustang" is a memorable, but bittersweet experience.