One-line review: Beauty of the Beast.

I was among the few to see this film in the theaters (in New Jersey) when it was first released. Despite the great reviews, it went out quietly, although those who saw it knew they had seen something special. Thankfully, the film recently got a new lease of life on Netflix, and writer-director Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre has Lady Chatterly’s lover to her credit, which will undoubtedly translate to more eyeballs.    

I went to see the movie in the theaters because of the Belgian actor Matthias Schoenaerts. I became an ardent fan after seeing him as the troubled boxer in the French hit Rust and Bone. Schoenaerts, son of the famous Belgian actor Julian Schoenaerts, was a graffiti artist before his film career. His breakthrough role was the Belgian film, Bullhead, which got some buzz by being nominated for the best foreign film category Oscars. But Rust and Bone put him on the international map. With his magnetic good looks and versatile acting chops (a romantic hero in Far from the madding crowd, an architect in The Little Chaos, a German officer in Suite Francais, and Booker in the Old Guard), it’s baffling he’s not a household name in America; perhaps he should have played Batman (he refused the part not feeling ready for it; moreover, isn’t Joker the more interesting character?). 

Schoenaerts is often stereotyped in intense roles because he seems to embrace grief almost romantically (not very different from his personal life, going by his Instagram posts). However, most of his mainstream roles are ensemble parts, and The  Mustang finally gives this phenomenal actor the spotlight he deserves. 

The film is about a prison rehabilitation program that still exists in many parts of the US. Prisoners (most of them serving long sentences for serious crimes) get to train wild Mustangs that are then auctioned off (the majority go to the US Border Patrol). Statistics indicate that the prisoners in these programs have a lower recidivism rate than others. Our protagonist Roman Coleman, a hot-blooded loner serving a twelve-year sentence for violently assaulting his partner, is in a high-security Nevada prison. The movie is about how he changes after training the equally volatile Mustang, Marquis. This revelation is not a spoiler alert because the journey to redemption is the subject of the film than the outcome. And it’s not a happily ever after kind of redemption; after all, Roman is a criminal with serious issues. Instead, the film is about slivers of hope, like the glimpses of the horizon Roman can see from the narrow window of his solitary confinement cell.    

We are introduced to Roman, tightly coiled like a spring that can uncoil violently and unexpectedly.  His estranged pregnant daughter (Gideon Adlon gets the suffering right) is his only visitor, but she’s there only because she needs him to sign the papers to sell their land, and he refuses. Finally, the prison psychologist (a compassionate yet tough Connie Britton) assigns him to outdoor work since he’s not good with people. There he meets the bright spots in his life, Myles (Bruce Dern in his familiar stomping grounds), the gruff horse trainer who sees something in Roman and gives him many chances to train the Mustangs despite messing up. The other is inmate Henry (the charming and underutilized Jason Mitchell). 

Over time despite many setbacks and shaming, Roman manages to subdue his Mustang, Marquis. The scene when Marquis is finally broken is one of the film’s highlights and rivals any romantic scene in movies.  But Marquis is a wild animal and not always programmed to behave on cue, especially if shocked, and this ruins the happily-ever-after ending we crave. But Roman redeems himself in our eyes and, more importantly, in his own eyes, by putting Marquis first.  From his final smile, we can rest assured that the healing has begun for Roman. 

The film has some clunky subplots that seem unnecessary and distract from the more interesting storyline of Roman and his Mustang. Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre ‘s film is made with utmost compassion; no one is black or white; we are all human and, more importantly, victims of our circumstances. 

The most powerful scene in the movie, and a masterclass in empathy, is the counseling session with the prison psychologist. She asks the prisoners (most of them serving decade-long sentences) how long the decision to commit the crime took, and the maximum is a few seconds. None of their crimes were pre-meditated; most were crimes of passion and perhaps something we may not have been immune to under similar circumstances. These men are not necessarily bad people but victims of their emotions and circumstances. Of course, not every angry person murders others, but the scene makes us rethink our outrightly branding them as criminals and brings us down several notches from our high moral ground.  

The Mustang is a meditative movie. Ruben Impens’s opening long shot of the wild Mustangs galloping full throttle in the wild, backed with Jed Kurzel’s score, is unforgettable. It is also poignant because it’s their last taste of freedom before being herded in, like the prisoners.  But the film eventually rests on Schoenaerts’ stooped shoulders, bent with the weight of his demons, and he silently but determinedly brings it home.  

The Mustang reminds us about the power of connections and how they can happen anywhere if we open our hearts.       

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