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(2019) (Matthias Schoenaerts, Bruce Dern) (R)

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Drama: A long-term prisoner finds a kindred spirit in the form of a wild mustang he's supposed to help tame.
Roman Coleman (MATTHIAS SCHOENAERTS) has been in prison for the past twelve years and has just been transferred to a new facility in Nevada. There, a psychiatrist tries to figure out his state of mind, but he's a man of few words, even if that's toward his pregnant teenage daughter, Martha (GIDEON ADLON), who wants him to sign her emancipation papers. He ends up working in a program where his prison has partnered with the Bureau of Land Management to tame captured wild stallions to make them saleable at auction.

Taught the ropes by fellow prisoner Henry (JASON MITCHELL) and under the watchful eye of Myles (BRUCE DERN) who runs the program, Roman ends up assigned to one such horse that seems unbreakable. Yet, Roman perseveres and finds something of a kindred spirit in the mustang, all while having to deal with his imprisonment, usual prison events, and his estranged relationship with his daughter.

OUR TAKE: 6 out of 10
I have to admit that I know next to nothing about horses. I've seen wild ones in various spots including the upper Outer Banks of North Carolina, on Assateague Island in Maryland, and in Chincoteague for the annual pony swim. But beyond that and a few trips to race tracks, my exposure has otherwise been limited to their appearances on TV and in movies.

My exposure to prisoners, on the other hand, has likewise been limited to the media, although I suppose it's possible I've bumped into an ex-con here or there and not known about it. Interestingly enough, such animals and such people are often viewed by the general public as being wild creatures that need to be "broken" in order to become more civilized.

For horses, and I'm still not sure why this works, it's through control, be that alongside an already tame one or -- as seen in movies and in old TV westerns, it's by getting on them, holding on and riding them into submission. For prisoners, it's supposedly by confining them in a facility, removing a lot of freedoms, and giving them lots and lots of time to think about their misdeeds.

Such breakage is the theme and storyline of "The Mustang," a decently made drama that's based on a real-life program known as the Wild Horse Inmate Program. In it, prisoners are used to help tame the wild horses that still roam free in the American West to make them saleable in auctions rather than have them euthanized to keep their reportedly already huge population in check. At the same time, it's supposed to help the prisoners by giving them something worthwhile to do.

A 2007 documentary, "The Wild Horse Redemption" (that I have not seen) covered this program that's run by the Bureau of Land Management. I'm guessing that and/or other such true-life programs are what inspired writer/director Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre and co-writers Mona Fastvold and Brock Norman Brock to create this fictional story.

In it, Matthias Schoenaerts stars as Roman, a prisoner who's been in the pen for more than a decade and pretty much seems unwilling to talk about himself to a prison psychiatrist (Connie Britton who appears in just two sequences) about his future.

Despite having no experience with horses, he ends up assigned to the program where he learns the ropes from another inmate (Jason Mitchell), but loses his temper and punches a horse. That doesn't sit well with the old man (Bruce Dern) who runs the program, but Roman gets a bit of redemption and starts working with a horse that's wild like he was, and that he first meets in a small pen. Yes, the symbolism is rampant through the flick, but thankfully all involved don't bash us over the head with it.

When he's not working with the horses, he's realizing he needs to make amends with his now pregnant teenage daughter (Gideon Adlon) who we first see wanting him to sign her emancipation papers from him. They initially want nothing to do with each other -- he from guilt about abandoning her and she still being understandably mad about him beating up her mom and then being sent away to prison.

Overall, the film is decent, and it's nice seeing the bond form between the prisoner who's trying to help the horse (to keep it alive) and that animal soothing the savage beast within him. And Schoenaerts is excellent as the damaged soul who gets a shot at redemption, while Dern is fun as the cantankerous old leader of the program.

That said, it's not quite as emotionally engaging as I expected it to be and thus I wasn't as moved as I probably should and could have been. Even so, it's still worth seeing, if just to support the program that seems to be doing good for both sorts of beasts. "The Mustang" rates as a 6 out of 10.

Reviewed March 12, 2019 / Posted March 29, 2019

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