The Mustang: Unbroken, Untamed, Unforgettable 

Man and beast heal one another

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Focus Features

Freedom (noun): the power or right to act or speak as one wants; the state of not being imprisoned.

Freedom or, more accurately, the lack thereof, is the through-line of The Mustang, a brilliant new film that considers the balance between the inhumanity of mass incarceration and the humanity of redemption. As a reporter, I'm sad to say that I've spent more than my share of days behind prison walls, listening to American men who hunger for a connection of any kind. Indeed, The Mustang is the first film that I can recall in a very long time that captures the essence of that hunger. Leave it to French director/writer Laure De Clermont-Tonnerre to craft an all-American modern tragedy. The Mustang, her feature film debut, is one of the first truly great cinematic experiences of 2019.

Wild horses have roamed the landscape of the American West for more than 300 years. Hunted for the slaughterhouse in the last century, the remaining herds have been protected since 1971. But while the mustang population has grown over the past few decades to nearly 100,000, the Bureau of Land Management has determined that public rangelands in 10 western states, including Idaho, can only support about 27,500 wild horses. That, in turn, has triggered government roundups of wild mustangs, with a few hundred each year ending up as part of the Wild Horse Inmate Program in several states (not including Idaho), where they are trained by inmates before being sold at public auction.

Thus, while The Mustang's narrative arc is a superb work of fiction, its backstory is deeply rooted in truth. In a northern Nevada prison, we meet convict Roman Coleman (Matthias Schoenaerts), struggling to escape his violent past. He's required to participate in an "outdoor maintenance" program as part of his state-mandated social rehabilitation.

"Is freedom important to you? Isn't that what you think about? Freedom?" asks a prison counselor.

Roman responds, "I'm not good with people."

Spotted by a no-nonsense veteran trainer (Bruce Dern), Roman is accepted into the selective wild horse training program. There, he rediscovers his own humanity in gentling what even the most hardened trainers have called an "unbreakable" mustang. It's no coincidence that the mustang mirrors Roman's symptoms of aggression, fear and anxiety. As a result, the film (executive-produced by Robert Redford) blends the constant fear of a violent outbreak from either man or beast with the promise of peace for both of them. Neither a prison drama nor a western, The Mustang recontextualizes classic images of the stark, rural nature of the American West while exploring one man's journey through the darkest part of his soul.

Don't expect any spoilers here. I want you to experience the same thrill I had in discovering this modern classic. But I would be remiss not to report that The Mustang's final, unexpected scene is something I will soon not forget. I can't wait for you to see this film.

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The Mustang
Rated R · 96 minutes · 2019
Official Site: focusfeatures.com/the-mustang
Director: Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre
Producer: Ilan Goldman, Robert Redford and Molly Hallam
Cast: Matthias Schoenaerts, Gideon Adlon, Bruce Dern, Connie Britton, Jason Mitchell, Josh Stewart, Thomas Smittle, Keith Johnson, Noel Gugliemi, Sean Bridges, George Schroeder, Gregory Williams and Joseph Bartlett
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