Director Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre
one of the correctional inmates from the WHIP program
THE MUSTANG B
France USA (96 mi) 2019 d: Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre
There is no religion without love, and people may talk as much as they like about their religion, but if it does not teach them to be good and kind to man and beast, it is all a sham.
—John Manly from Black Beauty, Pt. 1 Chapter 13, a novel by Anna Sewell, 1877
Anyone who’s seen the devastating round-up scene of wild mustangs in John Huston’s The Misfits (1961) has an inkling of what’s happening here, as both take place in the emptiness of the Nevada desert, paying homage to the fierce independent streak of horses that continue to thrive on their own out in open country, with this film suggesting as many as 100,000 of them currently roam free. With some impressive cinematography by Ruben Impens, an opening sequence registers a thrill of seeing horses in their element running freely through the vast openness of the desert, a symbol of the American West, yet in the backdrop of the snow-covered Sierra Nevada mountains off in the distance a helicopter herds them into a trap where they are stuck like sardines in a tiny pen, traumatized and vehemently frustrated by the tight restrictions, ultimately placed in a truck and driven away. What this turns into, however, is an examination of our criminal justice system, as we herd people into similar psychologically traumatizing situations, warehoused into tiny prison cells, treated like animals, and then somehow “the system” expects them to turn into productive human beings. While the metaphor may be blunt and heavy-handed, the assuredness of this first time director is surprisingly effective, drawing people into the heart of the matter without sermonizing. Well-paced, with evocative music from Jed Kurzel, evolving from a 2017 story in The New York Times, Wild Horses and the Inmates Who 'Gentle' Them - The New York Times, at the center of the picture is Matthias Schoenaerts as Roman Coleman in one of the performances of the year, utterly brilliant in Michaël R. Roskam’s 2012 Top Ten Films of the Year: #6 Bullhead (Rundskop), The Drop (2014), and the more recent Racer and the Jailbird (Le Fidèle) (2017), but also Jacques Audiard’s Rust and Bone (De rouille et d'os) (2011), where his hulking physique often defines his roles. Not usually much for small talk, he’s even more reticent here, where he appears damaged beyond repair, transferred from a lengthy period in solitary confinement to the regular prison population, yet in a screening interview with the prison psychologist (Connie Britton) his defiant resistance to communicate is remarkable, largely numb to the rest of the world, displaying an inner ferocity, with something angrily registering underneath his unwilling demeanor, basically suggesting he doesn’t do well with people. With that understanding, he’s assigned to outdoor maintenance, basically shoveling horse manure all day in pens housing these captured mustangs, with a select group of inmates taming and grooming them before they’re auctioned off to ranchers and policemen, including border patrol duty. But what captures Coleman’s curiosity is an unruly horse locked into tight constraints, repeatedly kicking at the walls, where he can’t help but investigate, as he and this horse appear to share a similar contempt for confinement.
Shot at the abandoned Nevada State Prison in Carson City that shut down a few years ago as a new facility was built nearby, it initially feels weird that they literally throw inmates into the pen with untamed horses without an ounce of training, as if they’re supposed to pick it up on instinct, yet a crusty old-timer, Myles (Bruce Dern), the civilian head of the program (aka WHIP, Wild Horse Inmate Program, which exists in 6 Western states), noticed Coleman’s earlier interest in the obstinate horse, thinking maybe these two intractable minds think alike, yet he shows little aptitude. Encouraged by one of the prisoners, Henry, Jason Mitchell from Mudbound (2017) and Straight Outta Compton (2015), who views himself as the best horse trainer in the facility, offering quick instructions on the fly, telling him to move in sync with the horse, like dance moves, but no progress is made. When Myles shouts out instructions to take control, rather than move into the horse’s space, Coleman sends a flurry of punches directly at the animal, which gets him quickly kicked out of the program, with Myles spewing he’ll add ten years to his sentence if that ever happens again. Nonetheless, he spent some quality time with the animal, more than anyone else, with the horse remaining proudly defiant. There are other narratives within the prison, which includes a visit from his daughter, Martha (Gideon Adlon, impressive), who remains standoffish, clearly having unresolved issues with her father, but his signature is needed to sell the house, as he certainly has no use of it, yet whatever the cause of their underlying friction remains unspoken, providing no backstory. Nonetheless, the tension between them adds a dramatic extension to the film, broadening the gap of his dysfunction. Martha offers no sympathy whatsoever, is stone cold, herself, playing it dead serious throughout, never giving her father even an inch. Similarly, there is a drug smuggling ring inside the prison stealing Ketamine, an animal tranquilizer drug kept for the horses, which some prisoners use to get high (and has other effective uses, none more startling than this story, Thai cave rescuers, who sedated boys, coach to get them out ...), coercing others, including Coleman, implying something sinister could happen to his daughter if he doesn’t go along, as they know where she lives. This kind of extortion runs rampant in prison systems, with inmates constantly under threat, with outside gang connections used to establish advantages inside, applying common terror tactics when needed to amp up the pressure. In addition, there is underlying racial friction, with blacks and whites maintaining their own separate space, seen constantly antagonizing each other out in the prison yard, like a powder keg about to explode. This is the real beauty of the film, an examination of a toxic male culture, where it’s an astute and intriguing analysis of what happens inside American prison walls, particularly coming from a European director.
External circumstances create a diversion, as a huge wind storm erupts, spooking the animals, with all hands on deck bringing them to covered shelter, including Coleman and his recalcitrant horse, raising the eyebrows of Myles who offers him another chance afterwards. Still, the horse refuses to respond, exhausting the patience of Coleman, who’s never tasted success inside the pen, thwarted at every turn, encouraged by Henry who reminds him, “If you want to control your horse, first you gotta control yourself.” This may as well be the mantra for altering the direction in his life, as up until now he’s continually been banging his head against the wall, exerting his will, but the wall never budges. Only once he’s finally stymied, reduced to a man stewing in his own personal failures, sitting alone on an upside down bucket literally talking to himself does the horse finally come around and acknowledge his presence. Pent-up rage and macho gesturing got him absolutely nowhere, but once he finally settled down and allowed the horse to come to him, this established some mutual trust. After a few minor mishaps, Coleman was assigned to the program, one of the selected few allowed to participate, where the underlying principle is the developing relationship with the animal helps teach empathy, with brutish men often feeling more at ease with their horses than any of the people within the prison compound. At the same time, more meetings with the psychologist leads to group sessions, some of which are interesting, especially when she asks each of them how long it took to make the decision that ultimately led them into prison. With most it was no more than a few seconds, and in Coleman’s case, a split second. It’s an agonizing road to realize how much has been lost by that split decision. However, in the next visit with Martha, Coleman is eager to make amends, excited to tell her about the progress with his horse, acknowledging his crimes and trying to painfully accept responsibility, offering the first signs of reconciliation, and while it’s among the more moving scenes of the film, she’s not easily moved, reminding him in graphic detail what he forced her life to become, leaving him a shell of himself afterwards, as he simply has no answers. Yet it’s moments like this that make this film relevant, as there’s no right way or wrong way, and no easy path, but at least it’s a beginning. There’s a stirring sequence when we hear Martha in voiceover read aloud letters she wrote to her father when she was much younger, when she still had hope, when he was still her father, when he meant something to her, but that was long ago. Since then much time has passed, leaving him with an open wound that may never heal, and he has no one else to blame but himself. It’s a startling revelation that must happen to so many men locked up for lengthy sentences, like a light bulb finally turning on, and perhaps for the first time they realize the full extent of what’s been lost. While there are other stirring moments, even a kind of mythical Black Beauty kinship established with the horse, they feel more contrived and of lesser value, though the WHIP program itself has helped significantly reduce the rate of repeat offenders, yet what seems to matter most is taking an honest assessment of yourself and the crime you’ve committed. The sad fact is there are plenty more like Coleman, a revolving door of new faces filling the prison cells while he slowly works through his issues in a tiny rectangular cell out in the middle of nowhere, where redemption only happens with a thorough cleansing of the soul.