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‘The Mustang’ Film Review: Matthias Schoenaerts Tames a Horse and Saves Himself in Prison Drama

Schoenaerts mesmerizes as a hardened prisoner learning empathy in this affecting drama

Horses and men have been mythic companions as long as movies have been around, so why does it feel as if within only the last couple of years, with “The Rider,” “Lean on Pete,” and now French filmmaker Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre’s touching drama “The Mustang,” have we gotten a fuller examination of this relationship?

Maybe because we’re finally seeing horses treated as flesh-and-blood characters and not simply beautiful accessories or four-legged extensions of the rider’s personality (or just vehicles for transport). Which is surely why de Clermont-Tonnerre was drawn to the stories coming out of prison programs around the world that utilized animals as therapy — living, breathing, loving creatures who could help resocialize those coarsened by incarceration.

But “The Mustang” — which de Clermont-Tonnerre wrote with Mona Fastvold (“The Childhood of a Leader”) and Brock Norman Brock (“Yardie”), and which recently premiered at Sundance — isn’t just about what happens when a hardened prisoner (Matthias Schoenaerts) learns to tame a wild horse. We’ve all seen enough movies that we can say it together: he learns about himself, too. What’s uniquely resonant about her approach is that, by framing this rehabilitation story in the context of not just our treatment of the incarcerated but also the horses’ situation (wild mustangs rounded up en masse as a population control measure), her film is about a relationship forged in a give-and-take that treats beast and human as emotional equals.

In fact, de Clermont-Tonnerre’s opening images are of freedom, captured explicitly from the perspective of the animals: a herd of mustangs at play, at rest, and roaming in a gorgeous mountain range, until the sound of whirring blades cuts through the sound of hooves, and a copter enters the wide frame to guide these horses into pens. Needless to say, the creatures don’t respond well, their every kick and exhortation thick with agitated aggression.

Just as significant in the filmmaker’s desire to link horse and human before they even meet, when the film cuts to a Nevada prison counselor (Connie Britton) evaluating a new transfer who’s off-camera, we only hear the prisoner’s animalistic, unresponsive snorting. This is our introduction to Schoenaerts’ Roman, a barrel-chested, menacing and tight-lipped convict of many years trying to get out of isolation and into gen pop again, except, as he grunts to Britton, “I’m not good with people.” He’s barely communicable even with his own pregnant teenage daughter (Gideon Adlon, “Blockers”), whose stone-faced visits suggest that whatever put Roman behind bars for 12 years (the horrific details of which we learn later), forgiveness has been difficult and parenting non-existent.

“Outdoor maintenance” is where Roman finds himself, shoveling horse manure, until the sound of a buckskin’s furious kicking against the door of its sunless pen draws his attention. Schoenaerts’ eyes, simultaneously curious and wary, say it all: Is this inmate angrier than I am? Once accepted into the prison’s horse-training program under crusty administrator Myles (a full-throttle Bruce Dern), and guided through the process by genial fellow inmate Henry (Jason Mitchell, “Mudbound”), Roman is forced to realize how much his unbridled rage prevents meaningful connection with others.

De Clermont-Tonnerre doesn’t shy from visually synching Roman’s breakthroughs with Marquis, the name he gives his ornery charge, with his own inner journey. After a lovely shot in which Marquis’ head silently, sensitively enters the frame to brush up against the dejected Roman — representing their first true bonding — she cuts to Roman inside the prison, at a window, the angle of which offers a reflection as bold as a mirror’s.

The filmmaker is aware that she’s in Western territory, yet she judiciously deploys Ruben Impens’ (“The Broken Circle Breakdown”) textured cinematography, and the intimately boxy 1.66:1 aspect ratio, for classically mythic images only when they resonantly tweak the genre’s visual language: a line of men on horseback riding through a stunning landscape, for instance, accompanied only by a watchful prison vehicle.

And while she’s injected “The Mustang” with an appealingly non-judgmental depiction of penitentiary life, de Clermont-Tonnerre is less skillful breathing new life into certain prison-narrative tropes. The one vivid byproduct of a tepidly rendered subplot involving Roman’s threatening cellmate is that Schoenaerts, when required to unleash toxic masculine violence, is terrifyingly good at it. Thankfully he’s just a magnetic actor overall, keen to the ways the physicality of brutish men is sometimes made hopelessly awkward by the injection of emotional healing.

The horses magnificently do their part, too, as co-stars in this redemption saga, mostly because de Clermont-Tonnerre gives them plenty of screen time to be irritable, sad, manic, desperate, but also begrudging, friendly, spirited, and at peace. It says a lot about where “The Mustang” stands in the history of man-and-his-horse movies that when auction day arrives, and the camera pans across a line of changed prisoners sitting atop similarly becalmed, four-legged hardcases, I found myself scanning the horses’ faces to gauge what they were thinking.

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