Driving down to Reno from Oregon last year, I came upon a band of wild horses on the lonely road near Pyramid Lake—just before they raced away in a cloud of dust. I remember thinking: to catch these creatures would be like plucking a seashell off the beach, or detaching a sunflower from its garden. It simply wouldn’t be as beautiful afterward.
This is one feeling I imagine viewers might have when they get into The Mustang, a Carson City-set indie film released earlier this year to little fanfare. But now that people can catch it on Netflix and Southwest Airlines (which screened the movie for free on flights to Reno), it may finally get the attention it deserves.
In French actress Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre’s directorial debut (produced by Robert Redford), the story follows inmates participating in Northern Nevada Correctional Facility’s wild horse rehabilitation program, set against the backdrop of the Silver State’s landscapes— unmistakably Nevadan mountain ranges that look like stone-colored tsunamis frozen in the sky, a symbol of both freedom and separation from the rest of the world.
The story begins in a poorly-lit room, where a prison counselor peppers worn-down protagonist Roman Coleman (Matthias Schoenaerts) with questions about his plans for work upon release. When he does choose to speak, it’s to declare that he doesn’t want to work with people.
With the main character’s sparing use of dialogue, we are left to rely on expressions and angst-filled silences to gather clues about who Roman is and why he’s there. We watch Roman’s young, pregnant and angry daughter visit him for the sole purpose of demanding he turn over the only belonging he has left—without knowing whether her rage is justified or misplaced. We see Roman go through the motions of prison life, head-down, an outsider to secretive inmate dealings. It’s almost as if the director wants us to feel like a silent partner walking alongside him, the only ones who can see the silent maelstrom inside of him.
And then we watch Roman unravel. Prone to fits of violent rage, hot-headed impatience and easily sparked frustration, the viewer is reminded that while he may be close to his release date, the system has failed to reconcile the learned behavior that landed him there in the first place. Until he gets the opportunity to participate in the prison’s wild horse training program.
What follows is an emotionally tumultuous relationship between Roman, his handlers, his daughter and the assigned mustang he’s “breaking” and training for auction to police, ranchers or hobbyists. Now given a sense of purpose, Roman begins to evolve in some ways while still battling his own dangerous impulses.
It makes sense that the director has us first see Roman as a suffering human being before we see him as a violent offender. (In the reverse, Roman initially views his horse as an untamed beast and later as a unique, sentient being, and this is when we see both of them change.) We are able to relate to Roman simply because of the order in which the story presents his parts; the director knows it is easier to embrace the complexities of a person when we are not immediately forced to choose between dichotomous “good” and “bad” sides.
The story’s major turning point occurs in a moment of brutal honesty, when the prison program’s overseer (played by veteran actor Bruce Dern) confesses to Roman that “some [mustangs] can be tamed, and some just can’t”—and the ones that can’t go to the glue factory, so to speak. The connection between Roman and his horse in that moment is clear; both are imprisoned, and both must be broken if they want to survive, though we don’t know if they ever will.