THE MUSTANG (2019)

March 21, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. A herd of wild horses frolic and gallop and relax in the prairies that separate majestic peaks of the Sierra Nevada mountain range. Suddenly the peace being enjoyed by the horses is interrupted by the deafening noise of a helicopter above. The purpose of the helicopter is to push the herd towards the corral and trucks that are part of the round-up. An opening title card informs us that more than 100,000 wild horses roam the U.S. countryside and the government is only able to manage a small percentage. Part of that process involves therapy for prisoners … an obvious analogy being the two wild beings try to tame each other. When the prisoners have trained the horses, an auction is held, and many of the animals will be used in law enforcement – an irony not dwelled upon here.

Roman Coleman is a guilt-riddled man. A man of short fuse and violent ways. He readily admits to the prison psychologist (Connie Britton) that “I’m not good with people.” After 12 years in isolation, he’s been transferred to general population and he seems pretty indifferent about it. His guilt is the type that only a split-second violent outburst can saddle one with – though we don’t hear the specifics until late in the film. The psychologist assigns him to “outdoor maintenance” which is a fancy institutional term for, well, shoveling horse manure.

As he observes the rehabilitation program, where the convicts train the wild mustangs under the tutelage of crusty old horse trainer Myles (Bruce Dern), Roman is drawn to the wildest of the wild … a mustang kept in a dark stall and labeled untrainable. The parallels to Roman himself are obvious, and soon head trainer Myles and fellow convict Henry (Jason Mitchell, MUDBOUND) have invited Roman into the program. It’s here where man and horse prove how similar their temperaments are – they both react with anger to most any situation. After a particularly cruel and unfortunate outburst, Roman is back to solitary confinement and studying up on horses.

Writer-director Laure de Claremont-Tonnerre co-wrote the story with Mona Fastvold and Brock Norman Brock (BRONSON). It’s the director’s first feature film and she shows a real knack for pacing … letting the uncomfortable scenes between man and horse breathe and play out. Speaking of uncomfortable, when Roman’s pregnant daughter Martha (rising star Gideon Adlon, BLOCKERS) shows up to get his signature on a form so that she can run off with her boyfriend, the history and lack of commonality between the two is palpable. Their scenes together are excruciating. Sure this is a cliché-filled concept, but the director and especially the cast keep us glued to the screen and caring about what happens.

Matthias Schoenaerts stars as Roman, and it’s yet another stellar performance from the actor who exploded onto the movie screen with BULLHEAD (2011) and RUST AND BONE (2012). Since then, it’s been one terrific turn after another. His physical presence and soulful eyes convey so much. He has mastered the strong silent type, but here he expertly uses body language to communicate with both the horse and the audience. The drug-dealing sub-plot appears to have been included to remind us just how dangerous a prison yard can be, but we never lose sight of the pain involved with second chances and learning to be a better person. There are some similarities to two excellent 2018 movies, LEAN ON PETE and THE RIDER, but this first time filmmaker wisely lets her talented cast do their thing, as she complements their work through cinematographer Ruben Impens’ (BEAUTIFUL BOY) fabulous work up close and with expansive vistas. Robert Redford was an Executive Producer on the film, so the beauty of the area is not surprising. The film allows emotions to play out right through the final shot.

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MUDBOUND (2017)

November 15, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. The Jim Crow South and WWII have each spawned many movies, and both play a crucial role in director Dee Rees’ (BESSIE) adaptation (co-written with Virgil Williams) of Hillary Jordan’s 2008 novel. It’s the story of two families, the Jacksons and the McAllans, striving for daily survival in rural Mississippi during the 1940’s.

The Jacksons are a black family tenant-farming on land owned by the white McAllans who transplanted from Memphis. This land is so remote and life here so hard, that tractors are almost non-existent and mules are rare enough. There is such bleakness to this existence that all seem oblivious to the ever-present mudhole leading to the front door of their shack. Rare elation comes in the form of a privacy wall constructed around the outdoor family shower, or the sweetness of a bar of chocolate. Soon after D-Day, Florence and Hap Jackson send their son Ronsel off to war. The same thing is happening across the 200 acre farm to Jamie McAllan, younger brother of Henry and son of Pappy.

A shifting of multiple narrators throughout allows us access to the perspectives of the key characters. We get both black and white views on war and farming. Their co-dependence on each other would never be admitted by either the Jacksons or McAllans. Days in war bring injury, death and dirt … not so dissimilar to life on a Mississippi farm. When Ronsel and Jamie return from war, they are both suffering. Ronsel can’t come to grips with how he was treated as a redeemer in Europe, but just another ‘black man’ being targeted by the KKK at home; while Jamie is shell-shocked into alcoholism and an inability to function in society. The parallels between the war experience of Ronsel and Jamie lead them to a friendship that ultimately can’t be good for either.

Jason Clarke plays Henry and Carey Mulligan, his wife Laura. Jonathan Banks (“Breaking Bad”, “Better Call Saul”) is the ultimate nasty racist Pappy, while Garrett Hedlund is Jamie. Rob Morgan and Mary J Blige are Hap and Florence Jackson, and Jason Mitchell (STRAIGHT OUTTA COMPTON) is Ronsel. While all perform well, it’s Mitchell and Hedlund who are particular standouts, as is a radio reference of the great Lou Boudreau. Rachel Morrison’s cinematography is terrific and captures both the hardscrabble life of Mississippi, but also the frantic and tragic abruptness of war (in just a couple of scenes).

Racism is always difficult to watch, and in that era, everyone had their place/plight in life. It was a structure built to ensure misery for most, and one guaranteed to collapse. The acting here is very strong and the film is well made. The story-telling is consistently disquieting and periodically unbearable. Still, we are all tired (or should be) of hatred. The somewhat hopeful ending caused an audible sigh of relief from an audience of viewers who had been angry and clinched for more than two hours. And though there is no joy in Mudville, we remain hopeful, even today.

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