Reel Dad: ‘The Mustang’ delivers meaningful message

Early spring is an odd season for the movies.

As soon as the Academy Awards are presented, some studios slow down their releases while others showcase films originally intended for awards consideration, while audiences wait for the blockbuster summer season. That makes this time of year an ideal time to discover small, independent films that might otherwise get lost in the movie shuffle.

“The Mustang” is such a gem.

The Mustang

This meaningful look at how working with a wild horse can help a man confront his demons has a lot to say about the potential of humanity. And while it’s clearly a movie with a message, filmmaker Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre resists any urge to overuse her platform to lecture. Instead she creates a compelling character study of a lonely, angry man who resists every opportunity to connect with others. Until he meets a horse.

We get the idea, from the moment man and horse meet, where this movie may travel. And de Clermont-Tonnerre knows we know. So she dispenses with a lot of backstory that might fill a film in lesser hands. Instead, from the start, she focuses on Roman, a man with a temper, a man deeply hurt, a man incapable of forgiving himself for whatever he may have done earlier in his life. While we only hear suggestion of what landed him in prison, we know, from the start, he is one mean guy. And that anyone who gets in his space may take a risk.

When Roman surprisingly gets the opportunity to join a prison’s program to tame wild horses — an actual program in prisons in the West — he finds himself in a situation that demands stepping outside himself to connect with something else, even if that something is a horse captured in the wild. While conversations with his daughter may frustrate, interactions with the horse begin to help Roman discover what he may have hidden for so many years. And we’re given front row seats to a man relearning how to be himself.

As touching as the story can be, “The Mustang” is not a feel-good movie in the spirit of “Cool Hand Luke” from the 1960s or “The Shawshank Redemption” from the 2000s. Instead this is as candid a film as could be made about such a man. Grounding the movie’s authenticity is the magnetic performance by Matthias Schoenaerts as Roman, an actor with eyes that convey volumes, a performer who needs few words in a script to tell a complete story. The actor resists any temptation to overplay Roman’s troubles or subdue his bitterness. And he manages to make Roman likeable while bringing to the surface the character’s weaknesses. Supporting Schoenaerts, in a strong cameo role, is screen veteran Bruce Dern who reminds us how he can command a movie camera.

Yes, like every spring at the movies, this one is a bit odd. Thank goodness for the chance to see small films, and for the Sundance Film Festival providing an annual showcase for independent movies. That’s where “The Mustang” got its start. And we are richer because it did.

Film Nutritional Value: “The Mustang”

Content: High. Moviemaker Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre creates a fascinating look at how a man who gives up on life may find a reason to again believe.

Entertainment: High. What a welcome relief to absorb a thoughtful, meaningful film at a time of year filled with superficial entertainments.

Message: High. While absorbing as a film, “The Mustang” has a lot to say about the power of surprise to influence how people connect.

Relevance: High. Any opportunity to talk with our older children about how we confront the realities of our lives and choices is time well spent.

Opportunity for Dialogue: High. After you share this film with your older children, take time for a conversation about how they make choices in their lives.

“The Mustang” is rated R for “language, some violence and drug content.” The film runs 1 hour, 36 minutes.

‘The Shawshank Redemption:’ A meaningful journey

Few of us can imagine how it would feel to be in prison.

From the outside we have no idea what those inside must experience, what they must fear, and how they must dream of a freedom they may never experience.

While “The Mustang” reveals the path a prisoner may take, “The Shawshank Redemption” focuses on the journeys that prisoners can take for themselves.

Movies frequently take us inside prison walls to help us see what life without hope can be. But they often sensationalize the crimes that people commit, the actions they take or the choices they make. As entertaining as some prison films may be, few help us feel the inner conflict that must live inside every inmate who serves time.

“The Shawshank Redemption” is unique among prison films because it avoids portraying the prison as a world removed from the world. Instead we believe in this community as a living place where people reside. They just happen to be there for specific reasons, and determined lengths of time, during which they do particular tasks they are assigned. This movie is less about the environment that could define them as it is about the world they create within those walls and the hope they bring to each day to find a way to get out and live free.

That focus on freedom is made even more important when, for one lead character, the time in prison is the result of judicial error. The film dares to ask how any of us might react if sentenced to time in prison for crimes we did not commit. Would we simply give up and let the years pass? Or could we find our internal “grit” to figure out a way to free yourself from such unfair boundaries? And could we demonstrate the patience and persistence to spend years perfecting our plan so that, when the moment arrives, we are calmed and prepared?

Through the sensitive work of director Frank Darabond, “The Shawshank Redemption” takes us inside the mind and heart of an accountant who is sentenced for life for a crime he did not commit. By detailing the daily actions and choices this man must make, Darabond draws us into the daily lives of a handful of prisoners who form their own community as they find their ways to survive, pass the time, search for answers and, in unusual ways, support each other and the dreams that the environment would seem to diminish. The film, with its details of the prison world the hunger for freedom, inspires us to make the most of each moment as we look at the outside world through the eyes of those trapped on the inside.

What makes this film so easy to talk about is that it is less about what got these men to this place than it is about what they do with the place they find themselves. Ultimately, this is a film about hope, and determination, as the characters resolve to find any way possible to experience the freedom of a day in the open sunshine. Because life behind prison walls is only gray.

Few of us know how it feels to live in a world without opportunity. By taking a trip to Shawshank, through the eyes of those who inhabit this closed environment, we can learn what life without hope can be, and be inspired to always bring hope to every experience we encounter.

The Shawshank Redemption, running 2 hours and 22 minutes, is rated R for “language and prison violence.” It is available online and on demand.