America from the outside: ‘The Mustang’ redefines success as intimacy through trust

The Mustang

FilmScene — through April 11

The Mustang, presented with captions

FilmScene — Saturday, April 6 at 5:45 p.m.

Video still from the trailer for ‘The Mustang’

The Mustang, from French director Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre, is a film that deals so centrally with a symbol of American freedom, power and independence (Ford Motor Company’s marketing team knew what they were doing), it perhaps could only have been written and directed from an outside perspective. The movie centers its focus on another foreigner, Belgian actor Matthias Schoenaerts, who plays Roman Coleman — a violent inmate who has just been transferred to a new prison. Schoenaerts does an excellent job of portraying someone struggling to learn the secret of self-control in an environment contextualized by multiple power dynamics.

Had an American made the movie, especially an American man, it would have been difficult to avoid the clichés that overlap with the iconographic mythos of the Old West. The Mustang could have very easily become a metaphor in which a white man learns the power of freedom after a few poignant episodes of struggles and failure. Mustang as metaphor for man would undoubtedly have become pronounced.

What Clermont-Tonnerre does, instead, is avoid metaphor and focus on simply telling a story that successfully resists the easy satisfactions that would allow the movie to disintegrate into something trite and predigested. Metaphors provide meaning; this movie exposes the meaninglessness in the heart of American nostalgia.

The opening text focuses on the plight of the wild mustang: Urbanization decreases the amount of land, and the animals, depicted in their raw natural strength and beauty, are pests to be dealt with. The opening shot shows the calm of a herd at rest, brought into a terrified frenzy by the sound of a helicopter. The horses scatter, and the helicopter does its noisy work of corralling a few of the horses, which are sent to a prison in order to be rehabilitated.

Video still from the trailer for ‘The Mustang’

The prison is a squat building, whose pretense of solidity and power is undone by the shots of the surrounding rocky terrain. The institutional showers are sterile and suggest the sort of abrasive cleaning products that haunt such spaces. The inside of the building is loud, with an ugliness that matches the outside. The contrast to the serenity of the world outside — especially with shots of storms — is revealing. Any dialogue on the subject would be unnecessary: silence, here, speaks instead.

The dialogue overall is sparse, but fitting. The temptation to seek toward metaphor occurs when audiences are treated to comments that could apply to both prisoners and horses: “dangerous animal,” or the goal to “break them and turn them into something of value to be auctioned.” A white man (Bruce Dern) is in charge of the program, based on the real-life Wild Horse Inmate Program (WHIP), which exists in several states including Nevada, where the film is set. The other white men hold the guns and patrol the barbed wire fences. The inmates — those who continue the legacy of the “cowboys” that break horses — are depicted as a range of non-Anglo figures: Latino, Indigenous, Black. It isn’t a metaphor; it simply is.

The movie offers some meditations on violence. The importance of breaking horses, and killing those who cannot be sold, is presented as a given: The audience is left to determine the question that this answers. The importance of breaking men is presented similarly — the movie does pause to contrast the time that it took to conceive a crime and carry it out (seconds) and the amount of time served in prison (years). These are also givens, not questions. Not answers.

The violence that occurs within the prison — its communication between men and animals, the direct expression among inmates, its indirect expressions in terms of blackmail, its potential expression depicted by the guards — takes place in a way that is often far less personal. Less human.

Still, these are background elements. The heart of the story is the heart of Roman.

Video still from the trailer for ‘The Mustang’

If there is a metaphor, it is one that the audience imposes on the movie. For me, the prison involves shame, fear, and guilt, the kind that needs no gun or fence. And the question of “breaking” is one best undertaken by silk reins and infants — not fists.

Another movie would have scripted its climax around the concluding auction, when the inmates show off the horses that they’ve successfully domesticated so that legal entities (such as the Border Patrol) can bid for them. The ostensible success of the program is showing a series of violent criminals who have tamed wild horses. Together, they learn to stand in a line during the national anthem — a more or less apt depiction of the process of “breaking” that is replicated throughout the WHIP programs.

But in The Mustang, although we see the helicopters, the ceremony, the auctioneer, the walls and the guns, the audience is invited to ask who benefits from the useless cruelties deemed “necessary,” as we march into the new west, during a new era of progress.

Video still from the trailer for ‘The Mustang’

The movie directs audiences to consider another kind of success. This is shown by depicting how the men — who have feared intimacy due to the violence imposed by the criminal justice system — learn to trust an animal. The beauty is to see the men ride the horses, integrating into a unit forged of trust, gentleness and mutual respect; eschewing the imposition of violence and fear. Dangerous is a question of context, not an absolute element of any creature.

The Mustang is honest in showing what is beautiful and what is broken in terms of masculine tendencies toward the logics of power and control. The power of the movie arises in letting audiences see meaninglessness from the outside, beyond what we might otherwise assume. This shows the power of the arts beyond, which has more to do with the intimacy of trust than the might expressed through fences and walls. Unlike that sort of violence, this movie has courage. It doesn’t show a metaphor. Just what is.

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