If there’s a word that best describes “The Mustang” it’s “harsh.”
The setting: a prison in the Nevada desert, a place of coiled razor wire and bare concrete walls set in a treeless sun-seared land of sand and dust. So much dust. Cinematographer Ruben Impens’ images are vivid to the point of oppressive. You can practically taste the grit in the back of your throat. (The picture was shot on location in a decommissioned Nevada state prison.)
The main character: a convict named Roman Coleman (Matthias Schoenaerts). With shaven head, well-muscled tatted torso and a baleful glare, he’s a formidable figure.
There’s anger in this guy. A lot of it, barely contained. Explosive when it’s released. Such an explosion landed him in this hell, a split-second impulse resulted in him battering his wife, and now he’s 12 years into his sentence.
The title creature: a wild horse. Not seen at first but heard behind the walls of a wooden cage, shrieking and kicking the boards. The hidden-from-sight embodiment of a fury at least as intense as Roman’s.
Put the two together, as French filmmaker Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre does in her impressive feature debut, and what emerges is a story about an unlikely bond that transforms both.
Roman is assigned to an anger-management rehabilitation program in which inmates break, if not exactly tame, captured mustangs that are then auctioned off to the Border Patrol for its officers to ride while on duty. It’s a real thing, that program. Former inmates, graduates of the program, play some of the supporting characters.
The key to success, a fellow prisoner tells Roman, is, “if you want to control your horse, you’ve got to control yourself.”
Not an easy thing to do.
De Clermont-Tonnerre puts Schoenaerts into the corral with the horse, named Marquis (three animals were used to portray him) for scenes where the danger in the animal is palpable. In dealing with Marquis, Roman must show caution but not fear. Schoenaerts, a Flemish actor, walks that emotional tightrope with consummate skill. His American accent is flawless and his performance, taking Roman from sullen guarded anger to remorse and a kind of healed self-worth, is the strength of the picture.
Fine performances are also turned in by Bruce Dern, reliably irascible as the head of the rehab program; Jason Mitchell, as the inmate who befriends Roman and gives him key training advice; and Gideon Adlon, in the role of Roman’s pregnant teen daughter, who won’t forgive her father for the damage he’s done to his family.
In the midst of that hostile physical and psychic landscape, de Clermont-Tonnerre has made a stringent tale of a struggle for redemption.
★★★½ “The Mustang,” with Matthias Schoenaerts, Jason Mitchell, Bruce Dern, Gideon Adlon, Connie Britton. Directed by Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre, from a screenplay by de Clermont-Tonnerre, Mona Fastvold and Brock Norman Brock. 96 minutes. Rated R for language, some violence and drug content. Opens March 29 at multiple theaters.