The Mustang ★★★★

While the parallels between the captured, tempestuous mustang and the caged, emotionally-repressed prisoner are obvious, The Mustang is not (as some might expect) a story of mawkish sentimentality. It’s true that a man finds something in himself through taming and training a wild horse that he hadn’t realised was within him, which is the stuff of so many cliché-ridden stories. But this is more than that.

Matthias Schoenaerts, who plays Roman Coleman, is no stranger to the silent, damaged criminal role. Having seen quite a large proportion of his films I think this is the most repressed character I’ve ever seen. He barely speaks at all for the first third of the film – it’s almost as if he’s not physically capable rather than it being a choice not to participate. Roman is a lunk of seething self-hatred who gradually allows himself to see a sliver of redemption when he discovers he has an affinity with the most wayward of the captured horses. It turns out however to be a redemption of a different sort.

There’s a secondary story regarding Coleman’s family and reasons why he is incarcerated, but instead of offering a more complete explanation of the man, it serves to provide a platform for Schoenaerts to externalise a tiny, tiny part of what’s going on in Coleman’s head. From beginning to end of this film, Schoenaerts is outstanding.

Director Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre - in her debut feature - contrasts the sweeping wide landscapes of Nevada with some intense close-ups of Schoenaerts, as if she is trying to physically get into his head from the outside.

But it’s actually what she does with the sound that had me most impressed. Schoenaerts’ nasal breathing and other noises he makes seem to be heightened, and parallel the noises made by the horse. It’s as if man and beast have a connection and understanding on that basic level, even though they don’t actually communicate using those particular sounds.

As an admirer of Schoenaerts, I wouldn’t have gone out of my way to see this had he not been in it, but I have to say it’s a bit of a hidden gem.

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