The wild horses that open Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre’s debut feature, “The Mustang,” are so magnificent that it’s almost a shame to turn them into metaphors. But that’s the nature of art, and in movies such as “The Misfits” (1961), “Lonely Are the Brave” (1962), and, more recently, “The Rider” (2017), these noble beasts have served well as a symbol for the untamed soul of a troubled protagonist.
“The Mustang” is not quite up to the standards of those three. It is handsomely shot (the scenery is more eloquent than the dialogue), affectingly acted (the cast includes former inmates and two amazing Appaloosas who play the lead mustang), and narratively predictable. Set at a Nevada prison with a rehabilitation program in which inmates train feral horses rescued from the rangelands, it establishes its parallel between untamed horses and untamed men unapologetically and without subtlety. Run by the ornery, ancient cowpoke Myles (Bruce Dern, now in full Walter Brennan mode), the program meets its match in Roman Coleman (Matthias Schoenaerts), a furious, laconic malcontent. Myles orders Coleman into the corral where their most dangerous and unpredictable animal broods menacingly. He tells him that if he “can last five seconds” with the horse he can join his team.
The encounter rapidly devolves into an equine-human version of a heavyweight bout with the horse victorious. Enraged, Myles banishes Coleman, telling him if he ever sees him punch a horse again he will have him “sent to the psych ward for 10 years.” Randle McMurphy would have leapt at that opportunity, and “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” (1975) comes to mind again at the end of the film, which is also when you’re reminded that one of the main reasons characters in a movie bond with horses (or any animal) is to get an audience to cry.
Coleman, however, gets a second chance in a contrived sort of way. While in solitary he somehow obtains an equestrian magazine and practices the training techniques he learns from it. A serendipitous pathetic fallacy — a thunderstorm — forces Myles to enlist Coleman to help bring the horses to safety. Coleman manages to subdue the fearsome horse he tangled with, whom he will later name Marquis, which impresses Myles, who accepts him back in the program. Coleman and Marquis then become soulmates, and the process of rehabilitation begins for both.
It’s not spelled out right away what was bugging Coleman in the first place, but a scene in which his pregnant, teenage daughter, Martha (Gideon Adlon), visits him suggests that he might not have excelled at being a family man. His backstory doesn’t really matter, though, as Coleman falls in a tradition of American anti-heroes that probably has roots in “Taxi Driver” (1976) and includes Walter White in the TV series “Breaking Bad” and most recently the PTSD victims in Lynne Ramsay’s “You Were Never Here” (2017) and Debra Granik’s “Leave No Trace” (2018) — the latter two films, like “The Mustang” and “The Rider,” directed by women.
These men tend to be laconic, tormented, tattooed, impenetrable, usually bearded, potentially or actively violent, with screwed-up families and traumatic pasts. Nothing that a good horse couldn’t cure, or a talented female director.
Directed by Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre. Written by de Clermont-Tonnerre, Mona Fastvold, Brock Norman Brock, in collaboration with Benjamin Charbit. With Matthias Schoenaerts, Gideon Adlon, and Bruce Dern. At Kendall Square. 96 minutes. R (language, some violence and drug content).