The Mustang

It may be a March/April film, but this movie should challenge for Oscar consideration as the Best Picture of 2019.

The MustangLet me start by saying that I was overwhelmed by this movie. You are not likely to see a more emotionally powerful film than The Mustang, directed by Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre. It takes place entirely in a Nevada prison and it will repeatedly tug at your heartstrings.

You quickly learn that over 100,000 mustangs roam the West, and a number are captured every year for various reasons. Some are taken to prisons where inmates are used to train them. While this film focuses on that experience, what you discover is the life of imprisoned felons and the challenge they face trying to remain human.

This film will have special meaning for trial attorneys, particularly criminal defense lawyers like myself. I have visited both state and federal prisons in the last 40 years, and you simply don’t know the monumental impact that prison life has on inmates and their families until witnessing it first-hand.

Here, Matthias Schoenaertz gives an Oscar worthy performance as an inmate named Roman, a guy who has no use for anyone including himself. Having been incarcerated for 12 years in Nevada for what you learn was severely injuring his wife in a fight, he prefers to live in isolation. He has little use for his prison psychologist (Connie Britton in a small role) or his visiting pregnant daughter Martha (Gideon Adlon) and he would prefer to sulk in silence.

However, Roman is challenged out of his self-imposed cocoon by an aging prison horse handler named Myles, played with astonishing charm by Bruce Dern. It seems that no one can train a remaining violent mustang, and Roman is thrown into the task despite the fact that he has no experience with horses.

What you watch evolve is Roman’s relationship with this mustang, a horse who obviously feels as confined to a prison as any of the human inmates. They repeatedly battle each other, and you are left wondering if Roman can be drawn out of his self-imposed state of isolation by a horse that clearly feels the same way. They both reminded me of Paul Newman’s great line in Cool Hand Luke (1967), “What we have here is a failure to communicate.”

Additionally, the movie leaves a powerful impact when you see the relationships of the various prisoners. Roman’s eventual roommate is a racist, drug-using scoundrel, and the impact this has on one of Roman’s fellow riders named Henry (Jason Mitchell) is heartbreaking.

The film’s crescendo is reached when our riders perform in a small arena in front of a crowd participating in the auction. Roman is the proud last rider, but his horse reacts violently when a helicopter flies overhead. The horse clearly has an emotional response to a flying vehicle that played a role in his initial capture.

The ending left me admittedly sobbing as I left the theatre. Durn’s Myles confronts Roman after no one offered to purchase his horse after throwing him against a fence and he is told that his beloved stallion is going to be put to death. What follows is a moment in film that you will never forget and I can only urge all of you to see this remarkable film as soon as possible.