Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

Movie Review: 'The Mustang'


Thousands of wild horses still roam public lands in Western states. The government captures a few hundred each year to be tamed and sold at auction. The tamers are prison inmates. They've inspired a new film, a drama called "The Mustang." Here's critic Bob Mondello.

BOB MONDELLO, BYLINE: Wild horses awaken on a wind-swept open plain to the rumble of a helicopter. As it swoops down - to them, a giant, noisy bird - they race away, dozens of them, gorgeous as they gallop flat-out, manes flapping across gullies and brush towards low-wire fencing that doesn't at first seem to hem them in much, but that funnels them, tighter and tighter, to a holding pen. Abruptly, they're captives, no longer free. Not far away, a far less innocent prisoner is coming out of months of isolation in Nevada.


CONNIE BRITTON: (As Psychologist) Hey, hey, hey. What? It's OK. Thank you. Sit down. Sit down.

MONDELLO: His interview with a prison social worker is not going well.


BRITTON: (As Psychologist) I get it. You feel like you have no control in here. I get it. I understand that. I am giving you some control. That's what this is. And like it or not, you're going to be reintegrated into the general population.

MATTHIAS SCHOENAERTS: (As Roman) I'm not good with people.

MONDELLO: Not good with people. So she puts Roman, played with scary, stumbling stiffness by Matthias Schoenaerts, on shovel detail, without mentioning exactly what he'll be shoveling - he figures that out when he sees the corrals. What he doesn't see at first is a stallion the color of milk chocolate, isolated from the herd and every bit as furious as Roman.


MONDELLO: First-time writer-director Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre doesn't underline the parallels. She just takes her time with the story of a man who's never learned to take his time with anything. Impatience, frustration, anger have separated Roman from his daughter, from the world outside the prison, but something about the brute force of this animal makes him want to connect. He just doesn't know how.


SCHOENAERTS: (As Roman) Please, come on. Come on, please. Come on. Stay there, man.

MONDELLO: He lurches at the horse, shoulders barely moving.


SCHOENAERTS: (As Roman) Just listen to me.

MONDELLO: Having threatened it, he then can't get near it.


SCHOENAERTS: (As Roman) Do you hear me? I'm not going to hurt you. You hear me? You hear me, you stupid animal?

MONDELLO: As the horse retreats out of the frame, the camera stays on Roman in close-up, his world crashing. If he can learn to communicate with something other than his fists, these two can maybe tame each other.


SCHOENAERTS: (As Roman) All right, bud.

MONDELLO: "The Mustang's" individual story elements are conventional - prisoner seeking redemption, crusty old-timer played by Bruce Dern growling sagely, family estrangement, horse whispering - conventional to the point of cliche, really. But the telling isn't, mostly because Schoenaerts is such a forbidding presence that when, on a few occasions, he lets Roman's mask slip ever so slightly - just the eyes - it cracks the character wide open. I'm Bob Mondello. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Bob Mondello, who jokes that he was a jinx at the beginning of his critical career — hired to write for every small paper that ever folded in Washington, just as it was about to collapse — saw that jinx broken in 1984 when he came to NPR.