If The Mustang were a song, it would have been written and recorded by Johnny Cash. The fundamental elements are all there: Love, God, and Murder. It is the story of a convict who is placed in a very unique rehabilitation program: a rehabilitation program that uses horses. The old man who runs the program is wonderfully played by the increasingly grizzled Bruce Dern, and the convict by virtually unknown Matthias Schoenaerts.
Schoenaerts’ credits indicate that he is a veteran actor in mostly forgotten arthouse and European fare. If his turn as Roman Coleman in The Mustang is any indication, he possesses unplumbed depths. Schoenaerts’ carries the film, Atlas-like, on his capable shoulders. His performance is the film and the film is his performance. And the final product is a tour de force of tragic intimate power.
The Mustang has not generated much buzz. This is unfortunate, because it is a deeply moving film. Schoenaerts lays bare the tragedy of human experience without resorting to the scenery chewing that is often wrongly associated with great acting. In fact, despite being the lead he rarely speaks over the course of the narrative. In other words, The Mustang runs counter to the contemporary flow of mainstream cinema in almost every way. This is “arthouse” cinema that is not boring or elitist.
Aesthetically, it’s most similar to the work of Taylor Sheridan (Sicario, Wind River) and James Mangold (Copland, Logan). These filmmakers have pioneered what I am calling the Neo-Western. The Mustang clearly belongs to this genre, because the Neo-Western does not simply update the chronological setting of the Western but reapplies the classic themes to a contemporary context.
Fundamentally, the Western, in its classic mode, was about the drama of self-mastery amidst the relative freedom of the west. This is why John Wayne and Howard Hawks responded so harshly to the greatest western ever made, High Noon. It wasn’t because of the film’s supposed “politics” but rather its ethics. To them, High Noon was a tale of infantilized manliness. It represented the pathetic end of professionalism through Will Kane’s fearful pleading with the townsfolk to help him fend off the four men coming to kill him. This was epitomized by the shocking end, where Kane’s angelic Quaker wife shoots the last of the badmen in the back. That moment alone represents at least three societal failures:
- The ever increasing victory of Feminism over marriage: a woman is forced to protect a man from violence with violence
- The failure of society to maintain freedom of religion: a Quaker (famous for their pacifism) is forced to take up arms
- The victory of technology over virtue: the old cliché “God created Men [and women] and Sam Colt made them equal” is proven true
This is why their response films, the amazing Rio Bravo and even better El Dorado, obsess over professionalism in the face of overwhelming odds. Hawks and Wayne wanted to plant a flag of opposition against what they saw as moral decay in storytelling.
These ethical complexities give the classic period of westerns an almost Shakespearean gravitas. When that mantle was taken up by Europeans in the ‘60s and ‘70s, an entirely different ethical vision informed them, a radical leftist ideology that saw civilization itself as inherently lawless and vile. The so-called Spaghetti Westerns play out more like Greek and Roman tragedies, where the violence is the story and the story is the violence. The characters are caught up into drama more reminiscent of opera. This is most powerfully seen in Sergio Leone’s films, reliant as they are upon Ennio Morricone’s incomparable scores.
Aside from the Spaghetti Western subgenre of tutorship narratives (Death Rides a Horse, Day of Anger), it is hard to find the humanity under all the stylized violence. But the Neo-Western synthesizes elements of both the classic and Spaghetti periods. Characters are granted moral dignity amidst worlds that are disconnected and undignified.
One of the best examples of this is the Sheridan-penned Hell or High Water. The protagonists are criminals, but the true villain is predatory banking practices. In the end, the protagonists’ criminality is not glorified, or even justified. There are real moral consequences for their Robin Hood tactics. This outlook allows characters to stand on their own moral feet because excuses are not made for their choices.
The Mustang accomplishes this through its use of the horse. After the gun, the horse is the greatest icon of the western. The horse represents the uneasy truce society has with itself: Man and nature living in harmony. But the life of a convict is the apotheosis of societal failure. There is no harmony or truce behind prison walls, where natural man must be controlled at all times.
But just as life without virtue leads to the removal of freedom, a life devoid of freedom cannot cultivate virtue. This is the true prisoner’s dilemma. This is why rehabilitation is so rare within penal institutions.
The beautiful rehabilitation program that forms The Mustang’s plot finds a way to add virtue and freedom to a prisoner’s life. As the film makes clear, the only way to master a horse is to first master oneself. Animals may not be psychologically sophisticated, but they know chaos when they see it.
There are many great moments throughout the film that drive home the theme of self-mastery, but the most evocative is when Roman discovers an ancient equestrian master, in a horse magazine, who captures his imagination. Roman tells a fellow convict about this man claiming that he could take a horse a mile in an hour. The other convict retorts that this isn’t impressive. What’s impressive about going slow? Roman’s reply is that it isn’t about speed but control. Apparently this horse guru even used silk reigns because of how much delicacy this act required.
Human nature is a shockingly delicate thing. It doesn’t take much to ruin it, and to repair a broken person requires that kind of steady gentle control. Some of the most powerful scenes are between Roman and the troublesome mustang that attracted him to the program in the first place. His failure to master himself, the same weakness that brought him to prison, leads to repeated failures to master the horse. But for the first time during his many years in prison, he has a goal, an object to focus his pent up energy on. The mustang represents Roman, wild and unruly as he is, but it also signifies his need for self-forgetfulness.
There is no magical formula to cure the human heart of its ills. Just giving a convict a horse doesn’t fix everything overnight. The pain of transformation is palpable throughout. The deepest scenes are almost unbearable, where Schoenaerts’ immense talents fully reveal themselves, are meetings with Roman’s estranged daughter, delicately played by Gideon Adlon. The source of their estrangement goes beyond Roman being in prison: it’s how he actually got there that has really devastated both of them. The moment when his true crime is finally revealed may eventually be ranked alongside the “contender” speech from On the Waterfront, not because of clever writing so much as the emotional meltdown Schoenaerts so masterfully simulates.
The Mustang is not easy to watch, but it is important and should be sought out, not just because it is powerful but also because it highlights the true story of this horse rehabilitation program: a program that actually works and should be implemented widely. Most viewers will have no ability to advocate for such programs, but that does not make this narrative meaningless. This film is worthwhile because it is a powerful demonstration of human nature, the beauty and the tragedy of what we are.