The Mustang
Directed by Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre
Starring: Matthias Schoenaerts, Jason Mitchell, Bruce Dern
Rated R for language, some violence and drug content
1 hr., 36 mins.

So you’re a French actress who wants to make her directorial debut with a film starring a Belgian actor in the lead and a plot based on real-life prisoners in a Nevada correctional facility who tame wild horses for auction. Swell. Who do you try to sell this to? Good question.

Well, it helps if you’re able to convince Robert Redford and Sundance Studios to step in with financing, and Redford of course will be one of your executive producers. Then you manage to rope in Bruce Dern to be your head wrangler. Winner. Still, there are those tricky issues: prison, mustangs, Nevada. A lot of unknowns here.

If you haven’t guessed by now, The Mustang is unusual. It’s not a horse-whisperer film. It’s not exactly a redemption story. It doesn’t have a happy ending, and the prisoner doesn’t discover his true calling and find peace. Still, if you’re willing to hang in there, there’s a certain grit and style to this film that is intriguing. There’s also a horse that rivals any of his human counterparts for acting. Unfortunately, he doesn’t get a credit.

Roman Coleman (Matthias Schoenaerts) is a 12-year convicted felon coming out of solitary confinement. His caseworker (Connie Britton) is trying to help him do something useful in prison. Coleman admits he’s “not good with people,” a true understatement. Out of desperation, she assigns him to work with a program that rehabilitates wild horses from the Nevada desert and sells them at auction.

No, he’s not learning to ride. In a literal sense, he’s shoveling shit as a maintenance worker. When he shows interest in a wild mustang, the head wrangler, Myles (Bruce Dern), assigns him to the tutelage of fellow prisoner Henry (Jason Mitchell).

It turns out Coleman is not good with horses either. When he and the mustang end up in a boxing match, Myles sends him packing and Coleman ends up back in solitary. That is, until a major storm hits and Coleman convinces the mustang to follow him to safety. Myles reinstates him with the warning not to strike another horse. Coleman must learn the hard way how to interact with the animal — with patience, kindness and self-control.

OK, let’s admit a familiarity with this plot. Prison, Redemption. Etc. But don’t think you’ve figured it out just yet. Yes, Coleman must face his inner demons, but not in a feel-good kind of manner, and there are twists in the story that make the ending only slightly hopeful.

French director and co-writer Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre wants you to taste the human suffering of prison, not only of Coleman shoved into his small cell, but of his pregnant daughter, Martha (Gideon Adlon), whose bitterness rivals her father’s. Coleman doesn’t get to turn things around with a simple confession. He’s a bad man and his crime deserves punishment. It’s a long, slow crawl from his dark hole into a small prism of human decency.

In dealing with wild mustangs, Clermont-Tonnerre implies that both the horse and the felon are stuck in prison. Neither get to walk away scot free. If living in confinement invites a certain amount of reflection and resignation to the inevitable, then the horse and the prisoner must learn to work together as partners.

There’s a way of looking at Coleman that is best captured with a camera and quiet contrasts between the material prison inside and the surrounding landscape. Clermont-Tonnerre has a great eye for detail and Schoenaerts seethes with anger and agony. Toss in Dern as the master of crabby actors and you’ve got yourself a good ride.

If you don’t mind being bucked around a bit, The Mustang will catch your attention and keep you in the saddle. Just don’t think that the horse is going to go easy, because for redemption, brother and sister, it’s a long ride back.