A troubled, roguish man with an uncertain future sees hope and salvation only in the eyes of a magnificent beast: an agitated horse who in turn imbues the man’s trials with dignity. This is the basis of The Mustang, a new movie expanding into theaters nationwide this week. Set in Nevada, the drama seems as much an excuse to film the sweeping, windswept vistas of America’s fringes as anything else, and its story is largely told through deliberate silences and sudden bursts of male emotion.
You’d be forgiven if all that sounds familiar. Last April, just one week apart, Lean on Pete and The Rider rode into theaters, two more tales of horsemen ravaged by circumstance and forced into harrowing struggles against impossibly beautiful backdrops, with their regal steeds among their only comforts. Though none of these movies have exactly been blockbusters—the highest-grossing so far, The Rider, pulled in $3.4 million worldwide—they all enjoyed enviable runs at festivals and art houses and warm critical receptions. Their quality is almost as notable as their prevalence: These “arthorse” movies range from solid to very good to instantly classic. But uniting them above all is that they’re stories of masculinity and the myth of the American West at a moment when such yarns seem otherwise to be decidedly out of fashion. Why are there so many now, and why are they so good?
The Mustang, which expands to wide release on Friday, is the most conventional of the three. It introduces the incarcerated Roman (Matthias Schoenaerts), a solitary hothead new to the prison’s rehabilitation program, only moments before introducing the horse he’ll try to break, an aggressive specimen who has to be housed alone in a locked shed. Sense a metaphor? Director Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre’s movie proceeds roughly as you’d expect—Roman’s dark backstory slowly becomes clearer as he haltingly wins over his equine counterpart, as well as the head of the program (Bruce Dern)—but it also locates moments of genuine grief for lives ruined and features a typically nervy and soulful performance from Schoenaerts, who has perfected the art of memorably dodgy men since the 2012 erotic drama Rust and Bone.
Clermont-Tonnerre, a French actress making her directorial debut, is not without an agenda as she cuts between the pristine landscape around the prison and the brutal, sometimes-bloody reality inside—which, alongside plenty of all-American iconography, suggests an almost anthropological outsider’s view of our failed national experiment. (Schoenaerts himself is Belgian.) But get her camera in a run-down pen with Schoenaerts and his mustang, and she finds something more raw and convincing: Put to work, Roman is forced to contend with the possibility of a future. Neither he nor his horse much enjoys the exercise.
Lean on Pete at first pretends to trace a bond between 15-year-old Charley (Charlie Plummer) and the racehorse who gives the movie its title at a stable where the boy picks up scraps after his single father is hospitalized. The horse’s fortunes decline along with the boy’s, and he decides to run away to the countryside with the horse, where things do not go as planned. If The Mustang is a conceptually tidy movie seduced by southwestern panoramas, Lean on Pete is more subversive: As the boy and his horse venture into increasingly gorgeous terrain, unthinkable brutality awaits. Director Andrew Haigh has few qualms about following his story into the abyss, and it is not for faint temperaments. He also has very little interest in the titular horse as a cipher—Lean on Pete is just another of the boy’s faltering tethers to humanity as he slips into a rural and urban underworld of ranch patriarchs, drug addicts, and worse.
The Rider, the undisputed masterpiece of the three movies, does something utterly different. Though it too rattles the heart with wide landscape shots, this time of South Dakota, it casts Brady Jandreau as a fictionalized version of himself: a Lakota Sioux rodeo star who suffers a traumatic brain injury but refuses to give up the rodeo circuit, even as it is clearly destined to kill him. As he grapples with a loss he refuses to accept, Brady also trains horses and summons a deep bond with one in particular, who, like him, has a dangerous itch pushing into the wild. As writer-director Chloé Zhao blends her story with Jandreau’s actual experiences, the movie feels at once fully realized as a film narrative and like a haunting document of a disappearing world.
Described together, these movies sound miserable. They aren’t. They all have a cathartic quality, the sense that their darkness comes on the edge of rebirth. The stories are about men and boys grasping at a past just out of reach and a future that’s hard to imagine, even as they start to live it. It’s tempting to see each movie’s particular slice of Americana as part of a “left behind” corner of the nation, those elusive pockets where the real America is stuck in cultural stasis. The political resonance in our moment wouldn’t be hard to summon. But the movies simply don’t play like that. Though they each clearly interrogate old Western iconography and its falsehoods and omissions, none sentimentalize their tortured heroes or the fussy horses they rode in on. Nor do they seem particularly interested in pat revisionist conclusions.
Like Clermont-Tonnerre, Haigh and Zhao are not American-born (he is English, she is Chinese), and all three approach their milieus with an awestruck eye for this foreign landscape and a cautious, attentive lens on their characters’ struggles. They don’t parachute in on their worlds, they immerse themselves—literally, in The Rider’s case, as Zhao films on the actual reservation with the actual people who live there. It also seems notable that none of these directors are straight men, given that their movies take on the most fabled genre of old-school masculinity. Part of the reason all three work so well, and really do feel of a piece, is because they don’t come with any romantic oater baggage. They naturally confront the hard edges of their stories and feel no need to tidy up.
The Mustang, The Rider, and Lean on Pete all end on fragile notes of hope for their central figures, even as their futures remain uncertain. The horses, notably, are less lucky. Equine counterparts in horse movies serve a variety of functions, but mostly as proxies for the heroes’ struggles and signals of their ultimate nobility. That is more or less true of The Mustang, and the movie’s final scene is a hair too literal in that respect. Lean on Pete and The Rider seem more ready to let the old ways die. They are both more devastating because they are unafraid to confront the disturbing realities of what happens when riders and their beasts come into trouble.
Correction, April 1, 2019: This post originally misstated that The Mustang is set “near the U.S. border.” It’s set in Nevada.