For a movie called The Mustang, there’s not enough horseplay

Marcus is The Mustang, but Roman (Mathias Schoenarts) is a wild mustang too. Courtesy of Sundance Institute

There is a real wild mustang control program in which prison inmates train captured horses both to place the mustangs in private ownership and to rehabilitate the convicts. The Mustang tells a fictional story of the relationship between an inmate and his horse.

Roman Colman (Matthias Schoenarts) is doing a stint with no interest in being placed in a constructive program or even seeing his daughter Martha (Gideon Adlon). But working in the prison yard, Roman gets a chance to work in Myles (Bruce Dern)’s mustang program, taming Marcus. 

The parallels between Marcus and Roman are obvious, though no less powerful. When Roman is screaming, “I’m not gonna hurt you!” all the horse sees is aggression. People make that mistake with other human beings who can speak English too, so it is a worthwhile example to show that aggression only begets defensiveness. 

When Roman resigns himself, Marcus responds, but really Roman has to exhaust himself to even get to a state that Marcus can tolerate. Hopefully we can all learn to start from a place of compassion.

Both horses and humans respond better to love. Courtesy of Sundance Institute

The film is equal parts equestrian and prison life. We see how inmates trade between cells, and how the criminal system self-perpetuates, but we know all that already. I suppose it can’t hurt to remind the voting public.

The unique perspective The Mustang has to offer is the horse and rider story, though it may be more sporadic than you’d like. The film takes for granted that Marcus opens Roman up to behavior other than anger, but it doesn’t really show that development. 

A few scenes of horse training are interspersed between all the standard prison drama. I don’t totally see how Marcus’s love and trust changes Roman. Maybe in real life you don’t get overt moments, but drama sort of needs signposts.

Whatever the reason, there are simply not enough scenes of Marcus and Roman, considering they are the central relationship in the film. Then it is a shame that screen time is taken up by prison subplots like Roman’s cell mate forcing him to smuggle ketamine, when that is precious time The Mustang could have spent with Marcus.

Roman’s growth is slight and that is realistic. He’s not fully reformed by his relationship with Marcus, but he makes progress. Some of the supporting characters may be based on real inmates who have trained horses, and it might have been more impactful to broaden the scope to focus on more of an ensemble of characters and their different relationships with horses. 

There are supporting characters like Henry (Jason Mitchell) but only inasmuch as they teach Roman how to solve problems.

The Mustang has some impressive horse footage, especially stampedes when they’re being wrangled, and good performances by humans. It just feels like there could be a lot more to the story. Perhaps a documentary profiling real prisoners training horses would cover more ground. 

Focus Features will release The Mustang on March 15.

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