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The strong bond between man and animal lives at the heart of actress Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre’s feature directorial debut, The Mustang, a drama with roots in a real prison rehabilitation program in which convicts train wild horses. Shot on location in a decommissioned Nevada prison and grounded by a deeply empathetic performance by Flemish actor Matthias Schoenaerts, the film captures the ugly realities of prison life while depicting one very unusual method for changing lives for the better. While these convicts break horses, the horses in a way are breaking the men and restoring them to humanity. 

Roman (Schoenaerts) could easily be irredeemable. Serving a long sentence for a terrible act of domestic violence and a frequent guest of solitary confinement, he is a sullen man who seems only able to express himself in outbursts of anger. He has a 16-year-old daughter, Martha (Gideon Adlon), with whom he is desperate to connect, but communicating his feelings is a Sisyphean challenge for him. He does not appear to be the most likely candidate for rehabilitation, nevertheless he is chosen for the program in which mustangs—recently captured in their natural habitat throughout the American West—are made ready for auction by getting them comfortable with humans. 

The first meetings between Roman and the irate buckskin who wants nothing to do with people aren’t promising. They are a matched set, as Myles (Bruce Dern), the head of the program, and Henry (Jason Mitchell), a fellow convict who has developed into a talented trainer, can see. Roman, as uncomfortable around animals as he is with people, doesn’t appear to have the skill set for calming a wild animal, not when he doesn’t even know how to calm himself. But that’s the point. In learning how to handle the horse, Roman is learning how to handle himself. 

At times, the story is a little too on the nose with Roman and the horse he names Marquis being so perfectly in sync in their temperaments, while a subplot involving a prison drug ring adds an unnecessary element of melodrama. Those are minor quibbles. With Schoenaerts, Dern, Mitchell, and a terrific supporting cast (including some non-actors, ex-convicts who graduated from programs like the one depicted and have successfully reentered society), The Mustang is a film with a lot of heart and one with an unusual take on America’s prison-industrial complex. The world tends to fixate on punishment, but most prisoners get out at some point, and then what? 

Beautifully shot by cinematographer Ruben Impens, The Mustang makes the most of its desert setting and one terrifically suspenseful scene where a driving storm threatens the horses. Clermont-Tonnerre imbues her film with a variety of tones from the simmering tensions of the prison yard to the uncomfortable atmosphere in the visitors’ room where Roman and his daughter fitfully communicate through his guilt and her anger to the camaraderie and sometimes surprising exuberance to be found among the horse trainers. The Mustang began when the director read an article about programs like the one she portrays and she has parlayed that into an impressive first feature. –Pam Grady