Tuesday, April 9, 2019

The Mustang: Soothing the Savage Spirit

Matthias Schoenaerts in The Mustang.

The first images of The Mustang, of a herd of wild mustangs racing vainly across a western expanse while choppers buzzing overhead round them up and vans cut off their escape route, is reminiscent of scenes from the great 1953 Albert Lamorisse short White Mane. It’s a hell of an opening: majestic and unsettling in equal parts. And it lays the groundwork for the story, which juxtaposes one of these magnificent wild creatures, a restless, apparently unbreakable horse named Marquis (pronounced “Marcus”), with a violent criminal named Roman Coleman (Matthias Schoenaerts, Gabriel Oak in the 2015 remake of Far from the Madding Crowd) who’s just been released into the general prison population at the Northern Nevada Correctional Institute after years in solitary. In his session with the prison psychologist (Connie Britton), Roman refuses to answer her questions; he looks like he’s about to implode, and he very nearly does – though she’s a veteran, firm and fearless, so his resistance to her doesn’t impress her. (Britton only has two scenes in the movie, but she makes the most of them.) Finally he gets out “I’m not good with people,” so she assigns him to outdoor work. Where he ends up is the Wild Horse Inmate Program, whose director, Myles (Bruce Dern), with the help of an inmate handler named Henry (Jason Mitchell), teaches prisoners to tame mustangs so they’re fit to be auctioned off for a variety of purposes, including border patrol. The Mustang is about how Roman and Marquis, in effect, tame each other – after a very shaky start. Roman gets so exasperated with the horse’s reluctance to let himself be subdued that, in an astounding scene, he beats him with his fists until Myles has him dragged off. Myles, not surprisingly, proclaims that he never wants to see this inmate again, but Roman manages to redeem himself in an emergency and is re-enlisted in the program.

The movie’s considerable emotional power and rough poetic quality are down to the work of four gifted collaborators. The director, Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre, in her feature-film debut, shoots the interaction of the horses and the prisoners with an astute eye for the way the bodies of both animals and men convey the depths of energy and feeling rippling like musculature underneath their skin, and the sometimes uneasy balance of violence and calm in both. The cinematographer, Ruben Impens, captures the complex mood of the scenes where Roman interacts with Marquis, framing them exquisitely, especially when, unexpectedly, the mustang approaches his exhausted trainer and thrusts his regal head under Coleman’s arm. Impens also does yeoman service in the moving sequence where, with understated awareness of their own achievement and a swelling of pride at the grandeur of the animals, the men in the program ride them into the corral for the auction. (Clermont-Tonnerre has cast men with equally photogenic faces.) The editor, GĂ©raldine Mangenot, creates the intricate rhythms of these encounters of wild men and wild horses. And Schoenaerts gives an utterly extraordinary performance, ferocious and sensitive, that is as much in the realm of dance as it is in the realm of acting. At different times he made me think of Brando in his early, bursting-at-the-seams physical screen appearances and of uncategorizable actors like John Lone as the Neanderthal man preserved in ice in Fred Schepisi’s 1984 Iceman and Andy Serkis in his motion-capture roles, as Gollum in the Lord of the Rings trilogy and Caesar in the Planet of the Apes series.

Clermont-Tonnerre’s storytelling skills aren’t on the same level as her feeling for character and instincts for how to shoot the mustangs; a few vital plot points get lost along the way. The screenplay she wrote with Brock Norman Brock and Mona Fastvold is adequate, but what happens inside the prison – especially the subplot about Roman’s drug-addicted cellmate (Josh Stewart) strong-arming him into getting him drugs from the prison infirmary – is much less interesting than what happens outside under Myles’s supervision. But the director is wonderful with her actors, not just veterans like Britton and Dern (who gives Myles a crusty resilience limned with deep reserves of compassion for both his mustangs and his men) but also less experienced ones like Gideon Adlon as Roman’s defiant daughter Martha, who hadn’t planned to have anything more to do with him (it isn’t until their second scene together that we learn how he landed in prison) but needs his signature so she can sell the house her grandmother left jointly to the two of them, so she can start a life with her boyfriend and the baby they’re expecting. The writing for the father-daughter interchanges is banal, the actors anything but. And the phenomenal Jason Mitchell, memorable as Eazy-E in Straight Outta Compton, brings so much vitality and humor to his scenes that when his character passes out of the movie, in a shocking sequence, you can feel the entire film slip into mourning, the way From Here to Eternity does when Sinatra’s Private Maggio dies. Flawed as it is, Mustang is a shot of life and one of the most unusual triumph-of-the-spirit pictures I’ve ever seen.

Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting Style; No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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