“You never go in there. That’s a dangerous animal,” says trainer Myles referring to the wild mustang that is being held in a boarded-up pen. We’re able to hear all its grunting and hard breathing and see the metal gates tremoring from all the kicking. But Myles could also be referring to Roman Coleman – the main protagonist who is staring in fascination – perhaps recognition – at the ruckus the horse is causing. In “The Mustang” (2019), the salient film debut by Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre, Roman is a furious convict who has been imprisoned for 12 years. He’s a pressure cooker of a man who finds redemption in learning how to train a stallion.
The film stars the Belgian actor Matthias Schoenaerts who has become the most resourceful and interesting heartthrob in international movies. He made quite an impression containing all this sadness in the Academy Award for Best Foreign film nominee “Bullhead” (2011). He followed that success intimating an unforced masculinity matched with sensitivity as Marion Cotillard’s lover in Jacques Audiard’s “Rust and Bone” (2012). Since he’s worked with Luca Guadagnino, Tom Hooper and Terrence Mallick. Currently, he can be seen opposite Charlize Theron in Netflix’ superhero film “The Old Guard” directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood. He shows extraordinary range in “The Mustang.” He conveys Roman’s built up fury in the way he breathes and in his gait. He sways back and forth walking forward as if the ground were about to cave in from underneath him. He’s told that “if you want to control your horse, you first have to control yourself” – and we witness a calibrated physical transformation of a man who has been scarred by his past actions. He’s devastating in the role.
“The Mustang” is a fictional story, but director Clermont-Tonnerre spent years researching the wild horse rehabilitation programs in correctional facilities that are found in Arizona, California, Nevada, Wyoming and Colorado. The film explains that there are more than 100,000 wild mustangs roaming free in the U.S., many about to be euthanized in the name of overpopulation. A few hundred of them are sent to prisons where those that can be are broken and trained by inmates, are then sold at public auction. One of the largest purchasers is the Department of Homeland Security. “You got to get them used to racing and chasing,” explains Myles, because the horses will be ridden to patrol the southern border.
You may think you know what’s coming: Man meets horse and they romantically transform each other – especially since the director is a woman. This is not a sentimental look at male violence and its repercussions – the opposite. It does have a very uplifting tilt, but it’s not by the book. It is Clermont-Tonerre’s point of view that is so unanticipated. The storytelling is blunt, sparse – and realistic in approach – with poignant expressive touches.
“I’m not good with people,” Roman admits to the therapist who’s been trying to figure out what’s important to him. He’s not been willing to participate in rehabilitation programs. One day while doing outdoor maintenance work, he notices the lone angry mustang. Myles (an extraordinary Bruce Dern) tells him to get in the ring with the horse. Each prisoner in the program is assigned a specific one and they have six weeks to train it. Roman has a lot of catching up to do. Their first encounters are brutal. Frustrated with himself, Roman pummels the animal with his fists. He’s sent into solitary confinement and banned from the program. It is there where he starts educating himself about equestrian care. A storm rolls in – and the horses have to be secured. Roman bravely takes care of his horse and is allowed to continue his journey of recovery. He names him Marquis.
His daughter Martha comes to visit with reasons that seem at first cruel. “What do you know about taking care of anything?” she chastises him. It is her encounters with Roman that are the most surprising moments in the film – and slowly start reveal things about him he’s never shared with anyone before. We understand she’s been trying to connect with this cut-off and damaged man for years.
The connection that is made between the mustang and Roman comes from isolation and desperation. It is rare for us to see such an honest study of masculinity, and an auspicious introduction to a terrific filmmaker.
Myles: “It’s all about balance and not getting discouraged.”
Available to stream on HBO MAX, HBO NOW and HBO (via Prime Video) and to rent on iTunes.
Screenplay by Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre, Mona Fastvold and Brock Norman Brock. In collaboration with Benjamin Charbit.
Directed by Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre
Starring Matthias Schoenaerts, Jason Mitchell, Gideon Adlon, Connie Britton and Bruce Dern
Director/Co-Writer Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre on Bringing “The Mustang” to the Screen
“About five years ago I read an article about animal therapy in a French newspaper. I got very intrigued by the potential of pairing prisoners and small animals. Originally I thought it was going to be a comedy. I called a therapist doing this work in France with rabbits, chinchillas, mice, and even birds. I witnessed how impactful these animals were and found the stories of them with prisoners heartbreaking. From that, I decided to write ‘Rabbit,’ my short film that premiered at Sundance four years ago. Digging into the subject even deeper, I found out about this program in Nevada that used wild horses. “That should be a feature film,” I thought. So from Paris to Nevada, from the rabbit to the horse, I ended up doing ‘The Mustang’…I grew up riding. My sister rode, and since I wanted to be just like my sister. I rode horses, too. I’ve always had a real connection with animals. But I was also fascinated with punishment. What was life in prison like? Was it education or incarceration? I talked to a lot of people—from prisoners to people running the animal programs—to deepen my understanding of these animal programs. There are people from the program like Thomas Smittle [who plays Tom] in the film. He was in prison for 15 years and told me his life was saved by a horse.”…I want people to know about this program. I was amazed how unknown those programs are. It’s important to understand that this program helps a lot of men. It really gives a second chance to men who need a second chance. Working with an animal brings love as well as helps reeducate physically and emotionally men with damaged souls.” (focusfeatures.com)
Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre on the Making of “The Mustang”
“I went to Nevada—which started the wild horse program—six or seven times before we made the film in order to watch them training and to gather a lot of information about the men’s lives and how they build trust and respect with the animals. Matthias came at the end of one week to observe the program in the prison. We also went to San Quentin to meet inmates with deep anger and violence issues. It was important to understand violence and anger on that level. During the process, I worked with this amazing prison therapist Kathleen O’Meara, who helped me meet a lot of men with domestic violence issues to learn what triggers their anger and physical violence. I need to immerse myself in this world to understand specifically and carefully the steps from beginning to end in the program.”…There is a really big difference between the inside and the outside of the prison in the film. I wanted people to feel the inside as a claustrophobic, rigid square. Outside, you have these spectacular mountains surrounding the prison. In the training area, you have these geometric fences with wild animals making unpredictable movements inside them. The design was very geometric: the circular movement of the horses running inside the fences created a round shape inside a square. In shooting the training, we used a handheld camera to give a visceral and immersive sensation. Since you cannot predict horses’ movements, we used lightweight equipment to capture the action as close as possible. Inside the prison, everything is very rigid, static, and square. We shot the film in a 1.66:1 format because I thought that would capture the claustrophobia in the prison. It creates a frame for the men on horses that is limited.” (focusfeatures.com)
“What I am proud of that was a hidden challenge: the miracle of securing the prison location. I started my research in the Northern Nevada Correctional Center four years ago and it’s where the project was born visually. I loved this location because I could feel the narrative and visual contrast here, and that was very important for the film. I liked how this prison was nestled in the rocky mountains of Nevada and how they changed colors every hour. There was something desolate and yet explosive in this visual. I came to this place several times to explore and to deepen my characters and the story. I was certain we would film here—until the moment came when we had to decide a shooting location. Nevada at the time did not have a funded tax incentive program, which we needed in order make our budget work. So, we were forced to explore other options. I was very disappointed because my heart was set on shooting in Nevada, and in my mind it couldn’t be any other place. Luckily, just weeks before deciding on a final location, the state government of Nevada voted to re-fund the filming tax incentive. Now that it was a financial possibility, we made an official request to film at this prison in Nevada. What was so special about the location was that there was a like-new abandoned prison next to the active one, that would give us completely liberty to film and dress the interiors how we saw fit. Given the complicated logistics of filming in an active prison, this is the one we requested. But the Department of Corrections had changed their mind, and said “no” after saying “yes” a year prior when we scouted. This was partly because of O.J. Simpson’s impending release from a nearby Nevada prison.
The public relations officer who would have had to supervise us during the shoot was overwhelmed with filming requests and publicity requests surrounding the event of his release. An added strike against us was that it is still a public property owned by the state, and located on the same water and electrical grid as the active prison. They thought it was too much of a liability and financial burden, and could have adverse effects on the active prison next door. So all of my dreams to be able to shoot there collapsed until, completely out of the blue, I was speaking to a director friend of mine. I shared with him my disappointment at losing my location. Then he said, “Wait a second! I know the head of the Department of Corrections in Nevada. He was the Head of the Department of Corrections in New York where I met him a year ago.” Out of millions of people, only one could have helped me get this location at this point and it was Jim. So we were put in contact. I called Jim and we set up a meeting face to face. We had a lunch where I explained to him how important it was to me for the film to be shot in this prison. It was not just aesthetic but emotional reasons. It’s the best wild horse inmate program and the first program in Nevada. I was thankful he listened to me and also thought it could be great to promote this successful program. The day after we had the official agreement. We brought in generators to be electrically independent, and added a separate water meter to not place the cost burden on the prison. We also managed to get a volunteer group dedicated to the preservation of the historical part of the prison to supervise us. So that was the biggest fight with my producer Molly Hollam and I, because the film wouldn’t have been the same. The location was the most authentic element needed to anchor the film.” (filmmakermagazine.com)
Actor Matthias Schoenaerts & Director/Co-Writer Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre on the Film
Schoenaerts: “The movie tells a story about the possibility of change and the possibility of transformation. That’s why I also think it’s so urgent and so actual to talk about it because it goes against, you know, a certain cynical tendency that we might run into a where people say, yeah, but some people are lost, some people cannot change. And this film tries to tell the opposite. And if this movie can contribute and if the journey of this character can contribute to that notion then I think we’re doing a good thing. And then the change is being instigated by this horse, the contact with the horse, which is a very intuitive process, a very emotional process. It’s not an intellectual process. It’s really two hearts beating and affecting each other in a very pure and straight forward way. And that has an enormous political quality to it. And I think that is also, to me, I think the strength of the movie it’s the sincerity of the exchange between these two individuals, so to speak.”
de Clermont-Tonnerre: “I mean, if, if this film can raise awareness about those programs and expand them that would be my biggest wish. There’s a lot of wild horses in holding facilities waiting for adoption. Sometimes they would spend years and years and years without, I mean, just sometimes dying there and there’s a lot of inmates upon their release who actually relapse and is there, are there, do most of them die. And I feel that those programs inside the prison, they’re wonderful and they should also be outside of the prison. I think it’s such a natural and visceral response of repair, a man’s soul, immense sadness and pain. That, I wish that was on the justice level is maybe a way to push it more, to explore it more and to expend it.” (screenrant.com)
About Matthias Schoenaerts
Matthias Schoenaerts is a Flemish actor who began his career on stage as a child playing opposite his father, Julien Schoenaerts, in “The Little Prince.” At 15, he made his screen debut in the Academy Award-nominated feature “Daens,” directed by Stijn Coninx. After graduating from the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts in Antwerp, he starred on stage and in award-winning shorts and features. His supporting role in Paul Verhoeven’s “Black Book” introduced him to a wider European audience. His lead performance in Michaël Roskam’s Academy Award-nominated “Bullhead” brought him to the attention of the international film community, as he won accolades including the FIPRESCI Award for Best Actor at the Palm Springs International Film Festival, the Best Actor Award at Austin’s Fantastic Fest, and the Acting Award at AFI Fest. He then starred opposite Marion Cotillard in “Rust and Bone,” directed by Jacques Audiard, for which he won a César Award; reunited with director Michaël Roskam for “The Drop,” with Tom Hardy, Noomi Rapace and James Gandolfini; and was part of the ensemble cast of Guillaume Canet’s film “Blood Ties.” Schoenaerts was then seen in “Suite Française,” with Michelle Williams and Kristin Scott Thomas, directed by Saul Dibb; “Far from the Madding Crowd,” directed by Thomas Vinterberg, opposite Carey Mulligan, based on the Thomas Hardy novel; Luca Guadagnino’s “A Bigger Splash” with Tilda Swinton, Ralph Fiennes and Dakota Johnson; Alice Winocour’s “Maryland,” opposite Diane Kruger; and Tom Hooper’s “The Danish Girl,” with Eddie Redmayne and Alicia Vikander. In 2017, Schoenaerts starred in the Michaël R. Roskam movie “Le Fidèle,” with Adèle Exarchopoulos, and in the Ritesh Batra Netflix movie “Our Souls at Night,” with Jane Fonda and Robert Redford. In 2018, he appeared in “Red Sparrow,” directed by Francis Lawrence with Jennifer Lawrence; had a starring role in Terrence Malick’s “A Hidden Life;” and starred in Thomas Vinterberg’s “Kursk” with Colin Firth, and in “Territoires” by David Oelhoffen with Reda Kateb. (filmindependent.org)
About Director and Co-Writer Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre
Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre is a French actress, producer, director living in Los Angeles. After graduating with a Master of History at La Sorbonne, Laure moved to NY to study acting with Susan Batson. She worked as an actress with Raoul Ruiz, Luc Besson, Julian Schnabel to name a few of them. The first short film that she directed was “Atlantic Avenue.” The film was selected by major festivals including Tribeca, Clermont-Ferrand, Palm Springs, and went on to winning Best Actress in Milwaukee Film festival, Best Cinematography in Nantucket, Jury Prize in Tenerife, Best Film in Bordeaux. Her second short film, “Rabbit,” premiered at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival in the US narrative competition. “The Mustang,” her first feature film, won the NHK Award for the screenplay and was developed with the help of the Sundance Institute. The film starred Matthias Schoenaerts, Bruce Dern and Jason Mitchell and was released theatrically in the US on March 15th 2019. The film was produced by Alain Goldman and executive produced by Robert Redford. The film was distributed internationally by Focus Features. (universaltalentdevelopment.com) Most recently, she directed episodes of “The Act” (2019) and “Mrs. America” (2020).