By Michael Castaneda
Published: March 27th, 2019
There might be a new genre in film cropping up—movies made about the American West by directors who are not American. Last year, there was one of the best films of that year The Rider directed by Chloe Zhao, a Chinese director. t was absolutely brilliant! This year we have The Mustang, directed by Laure de Clemont-Tonnerre who is a French female director.
Much like her countryman Alexis de Tocqueville of two hundred years ago, Clemont-Tonnerre gives us a lens into America which may be more American than an American director would have.
In case you have forgotten, Alexis de De Tocqueville wrote De La Democratie en Amerique, which are his observations of American Democracy made in the 1830s. It is still taught today in American schools.
The movie focus’ on two segments of America, the wild Mustang population that averages to about 100 thousand and the American prison population, which is 2,298,300 according to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics. There exists an intersection of these two populations. It’s a Wild Horse Program where prisoners in medium security prisons with no experience tame wild Mustangs that will go for auction. Prisoners who have gone through this program are less likely to re-offend.
Better known examples of these sorts of programs are vetDogs for veterans with PTSD coming to puppy breaks during college finals like at Columbia University’s Butler library. There is even a Dog therapist who visits Goldwater hospital on Roosevelt Island every month.
The movie itself is not easy to watch. It is about 90 minutes but feels much longer. That doesn’t mean the movie is unsatisfying, but it can be tedious.
We start with Roman who is a prisoner with a few stints in solitary confinement. He seems stunted emotionally. He is in no hurry to get out of prison. Prison life albeit difficult is something that he has learned to survive in.
His prison day job is to move horse feces from one place to another. One day he passes by a horse in solitary confinement. See the connection?
By showing an interest in the horse, he is given an opportunity to train the horse. The problem is that to train a wild horse, he needs to communicate with his emotions and show restraint. Roman isn’t good at that.
We see Roman punching a horse after he is affronted by the horse. It was a weird image to watch. It took a second to realize what I was watching. Then, both Roman and the horse are subdued. It a nice piece of film making. There is symmetry in the shot. Both characters are equals. Both look at each other as equals. Both go back to solitary confinement until during an episode of extreme weather Roman helps save the horse by getting the horse to safety during the storm. The movie has no dearth of metaphor.
Roman earned another chance to train this horse. Both the horse and the man realize they were given a second chance. Each breaks each other down. When Roman is able to connect with the horse, Roman starts to connect with his own feelings albeit as slowly as it is taking him to learn his horse.
The film gets interesting.
It’s refreshing to see a movie that is not about rich people. It’s refreshing to watch a redemption story without feeling it is a vehicle to persuade the audience. Nevertheless, I think this can trouble people because there is no simple moral at the end of the story.
Those who grew up with pets can relate to the powerful connection you have with your pet. Those who like horses will see lots of pretty horses and nothing bad happens to a horse. Don’t worry!
This movie reminds me that America, despite being raw, is an idea. There are four characters in the movie, Roman, the horse, the landscape and the prison, each is raw and powerful. Like early American naturist art to photography of Ansel Adams, you get the feeling that there is something vast and powerful out there and you must make of it as you imagine it.