Matthias Schoenaerts plays a troubled felon in the drama “The Mustang.” (Focus Features)
Movie critic

Rating:

“The Mustang,” a promising debut by writer-director Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre, begins with moments of astonishing beauty that quickly give way to alarm: A herd of wild horses, quietly doing horse-y things on a windswept landscape, is suddenly interrupted by a helicopter, which proceeds to guide the terrified animals to a pen where they will be led into a crowded trailer.

Their destination is prison in the Nevada desert, where an inmate named Roman Coleman (Matthias Schoenaerts) has just been transferred out of solitary confinement. Hooded, brooding and given to sharp bursts of impulsive violence, Roman keeps to himself, much like the magnificent, unmanageable buckskin that — isolated in its own cell — begins to exert a wordless pull on the moody prisoner. Soon, Roman and the mustang, which he names Marquis and pronounces “Marcus,” are training together in a program in which prisoners work with wild horses until the animals are ready to be auctioned or adopted.

Would it shock anyone to learn that Roman begins to heal his own traumatic past through his work with the similarly mercurial Marquis? Or that human and animal develop an unbreakable bond, through which they both learn to trust and let go? Isn’t that Bruce Dern over there, playing the irascible old coot who sees something special in Roman’s uncanny rapport with an un-“gentleable” horse?

Luckily, “The Mustang” overcomes its most predictable story beats thanks to de Clermont-Tonnerre’s intimate, unfussy style and a quietly captivating performance by Schoenaerts. (There are, admittedly, one or two on-the-nose moments of parallelism, including one where Roman kicks his cell wall as if he were a headstrong stallion in a stall.)


Schoenaerts, left, and Jason Mitchell play prison inmates in a rehabilitation program that uses wild horses — inspired by those in real life. (Focus Features)

Filming her subjects in extreme, expressive close-ups, de Clermont-Tonnerre — who co-wrote “The Mustang” with Mona Fastvold and Brock Norman Brock — cuts through the usual prison-drama cliches to tell a story that feels human and unique. Inspired by actual wild-horse rehabilitation programs in prisons throughout the West and Midwest — real-life graduates of the program, including the storied trainer Thomas Smittle, are cast in supporting roles as Roman’s fellow inmates — she offers hope for even the most hardened offenders, without succumbing to sentimentality or romanticism. She’s helped enormously in that enterprise by Schoenaerts, who maintains an unreachable stoicism throughout “The Mustang,” holding viewers at bay, but never far enough that they won’t want to lean in for a closer look.

The training scenes in “The Mustang” are often frustrating to watch, especially when Roman rushes at Marquis head-on, yelling at him and, at one point, punching him. Those agonizing moments are offset by Jason Mitchell’s portrayal of a cheerful, trick-riding inmate named Henry. Subplots involving Roman’s past, a crime ring within the prison, and a brief glimpse of a restorative justice session don’t distract from the movie’s core mission as an engrossing parable about freedom, patience, empathy and the limits of control that happens to have inspiring, real-world roots. Without committing unforgivable spoilers, it’s possible to reassure animal- and people-lovers alike that “The Mustang” won’t reduce them to a totally useless pulp. De Clermont-Tonnerre doesn’t give us a happy ending, exactly, but one that gives her human and equine heroes a fighting chance.

R. At Landmark’s E Street Cinema. Contains mature thematic material, sexuality and a rude gesture. 96 minutes.