It’s apparent Coleman is all kinds of hostile, and not inclined to play nice with his minders. He tells the prison’s sympathetic psychologist (Connie Britton) with a growl that “I’m not good with people” and, in the first few scenes, it shows.
Luckily for Coleman, his particular prison hosts a government-sponsored program that aims to tame some of the estimated 100,000 wild horses roaming free in the U.S. — those not condemned to die by euthanasia — for sale and subsequent repurpose at auction. One day on yard-cleaning duty, Coleman spots a mustang as mercurial as himself. So begins Coleman’s long, slow journey towards redemption alongside the horse he dubs Marcus and who Coleman must cultivate as he confronts his own demons and powerful will to be free.
From this straightforward premise (modeled on the real-life Wild Horse Inmate Program if not an actual inmate) comes a film with few narrative fastballs but tremendous emotional impact. The Mustang manages, against all odds, to elicit empathy for Schoenaerts’s Coleman and others in his midst who, as we know too well, must be thoughtfully rehabilitated if society hopes to take them back in any meaningful and non-recidivist way.
Little of what happens in The Mustang is surprising: Coleman ingratiates himself with the program’s curmudgeonly leader Myles (Bruce Dern) only to run afoul of him during a scorching burst of anger. Later, when Coleman helps to save the animals during a sudden storm, he is permitted to rejoin the program, by then an obvious lifeline for man and beast. As Coleman learns to lead Marcus, he faces up to his own impulses for the very first time, encountering truisms that nevertheless carry real freight.
Several scenes, notably a confessional between Coleman and his grown daughter (Gideon Adlon) — who paid an unspeakable price for her father’s violence — and another between Coleman and fellow inmates in the program grieving a murder, ring absolutely true. Moreover, Belgian-born Schoenaerts scans as credibly American in part because of his character’s reticence. (And when he does speak, it’s barely above a whisper).
Quiet, understated and unforgettable, The Mustang is a winner by five lengths.
The Mustang. Directed by Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre. Starring Matthias Schoenaerts, Connie Britton, Bruce Dern, Gideon Adlon and Jason Mitchell. Opens wide March 22.