The Mustang doesn’t really surprise with its destinations for Roman, Myles, and a small handful of other characters like the young woman (Gideon Adlon) who pays Roman frosty visits. The expected beats and equivalencies are hit in Clermont-Tonnerre’s script, which she wrote with Brock Norman Brock and Mona Fastvold (who writes Brady Corbet’s confrontational films, in sharp comparison to this one’s emotionality). Rapprochements are tiptoed around, lines are drawn between humans and animals destined for the trash heap, repressed tears are shed. However, it takes real skill to make what’s expected still feel powerful. Schoenaerts is doing a lot of the work with how brittle and raw he makes Roman. He doesn’t do things halfway. If he’s going to get in a fight with a fellow convict, he might beat him to death. If he’s going to open up to a horse, he’s going to tear his heart out for the animal. There was always going to be a moment when the horse nuzzles into Roman for the first time, and the long-buried softness that comes out of him overwhelms the inevitability of the connection.
As old as the human-animal connection in The Mustang’s storytelling is, Clermont-Tonnerre and her co-writers place their film within the parlance of lefty rehabilitation and engage with all that’s difficult about that particular corner of empathic politics. Roman is revealed to be in the correct place, as he has engaged in his fair share of anti-social behavior and the painful consequences are very real for him and for those affected. However, if film is going to be a place where empathy is generated, why not challenge the audience onscreen and by extension with the real-life Romans who might find redemption within and without. There’s a lot of grace in The Mustang towards characters who need it granted to them and who need to grant it to others. The Mustang, a classic and beautifully communicated story with modern relevance, is a ride worth taking. A reel of staggering pictures from the real life program shown over the credits are enough to melt any man, even those with Schoenaerts-sized shoulders. A-