Matthias Schoenaerts has a great face for the movies.
With his long, crooked nose and hooded-yet-piercing eyes, he can seem completely impassive, almost catatonic. And yet a cascade of tightly controlled responses flicker across his face at the tiniest compression of his mouth or flattening of his eyebrows. It’s a face worth watching, and the Belgian actor who first came to prominence opposite Marion Cotillard in Rust and Bone is the best reason to see The Mustang.
With Robert Redford in the saddle as executive producer, The Mustang was workshopped through the Sundance Institute as the feature film debut for director Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre. Working from her original story idea, actress-turned-filmmaker Clermont-Tonnerre (who wrote the script with Mona Fastvold and Brock Norman Brock) spins a tale of wild horses, regret and redemption set in a high-security prison complex out in the middle of the Nevada desert. The analogy between wild-spirited mustangs and incarcerated men who have lost their freedom is pretty standard stuff, yet the nuances of character, story and subtle, yet profoundly felt emotion keep viewers involved.
Schoenaerts stars as Roman, a wary, tight-lipped prison inmate so taciturn he makes Clint Eastwood look like a chatterbox. After 12 years in the system, he’s recently been transferred to a new facility en route to being gradually reintegrated into society. (The movie was shot in and around the former Nevada State Prison in Carson City.)
It takes a while to find out what Roman is in for. He’s not exactly the type to chum up to his fellow inmates and share his life story—especially not with his jittery roommate (Josh Stewart). Nor does he cozy up to the prison therapist (Connie Britton), who tries to break through his protective psychological armor; we also see her conducting a session on “restorative justice,” the new buzz phrase for what used to be called “anger management.” Beneath his stoic demeanor, Roman radiates a potential for volatility that no one wants to push too far.
His story plays out against the larger backdrop of a wild horse round-up out in the surrounding desert, where mustangs are herded by helicopter into a holding corral adjacent to the prison. There, select inmates are assigned to break and gentle the animals for auction as part of their rehabilitation process under the watchful eye of program director Myles (Bruce Dern), a crusty, cantankerous old horse trainer.
Initially assigned to shovel manure around the compound, Roman is drawn to a particularly obstreperous animal so fierce he’s shut up in a pen by himself, away from the other horses. Apparently, the feeling is mutual; Roman doesn’t know any better than to enter the pen, and when the two of them size each other up, curiosity—not bloodshed—ensues. Myles decrees that Roman should enter the program, and with the help of gregarious fellow inmate and trick-rider Henry (an appealing Jason Mitchell), Roman and his mustang slowly establish the fraught, prickly bond of kindred spirits.
There are no particular surprises in the story; the tenderness with which Roman bonds with his horse begins to seep—very gradually—into his fractured relationship with his angry, abandoned grown daughter (Gideon Adlon), who occasionally visits him in prison with papers for him to sign. But Clermont-Tonnerre’s storytelling is thoughtful and stirring with lovely moments, like the first time the horse unexpectedly nuzzles the frustrated, frazzled Roman.
And then there’s Schoenaerts, whose haunted eyes take in everything, revealing the merest glimpses of feeling buried beneath his posture of menace. Schoenaerts has had a long, varied career in European film, from the steroid-pumped protagonist in Bullhead to romantic leads in Far From the Madding Crowd and A Little Chaos (he also played a slinky art dealer in The Danish Girl), and it’s always interesting to see what he’ll do next.
The other compelling aspect of the movie is its loving tribute to iconic wild mustangs from producer Redford, the horse whisperer himself. It’s these spirited animals whose freedom he (and we) care about most.
*** (out of four)
With Matthias Schoenaerts, Bruce Dern, Jason Mitchell, and Connie Britton. Directed by Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre. Written by Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre, Mona Fastvold and Brock Norman Brock. A Focus Features release. Rated R. 96 minutes.