Fascinating and frequently compelling, “The Mustang” is a hybrid, the unlikely combination of genres you wouldn’t think go together but are able to coexist thanks to an exceptional leading performance.
The feature debut by French director and co-writer Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre, “The Mustang” brings an unmistakable European art-house sensibility to a quintessential American mashup — part prison film, part western — with themes of self-improvement and love of animals thrown into the bargain.
Sometimes as ungainly as its elaborate writing credit (De Clermont-Tonnerre, Mona Fastvold, and Brock Norman Brock in collaboration with Benjamin Charbit) would indicate, “Mustang” is anchored and energized by the knockout work of Flemish actor Matthias Schoenaerts.
Whatever language he works in, Schoenaerts is a singular talent who can convincingly convey danger and menace as naturally as he breathes.
And whatever rough spots “The Mustang” has, Schoenaerts’ ability to surprise and keep us off balance carries us over them. Everything else on the screen, including some gorgeous wild horses, are inevitably overshadowed by his work.
Those horses, photographed during a Bureau of Land Management roundup in Utah, are captured on screen looking as stunning, and as wild, as anyone could wish for.
The film has already let us know that these horses are rounded up because of a governmental mandate to keep the herds to sustainable levels. Some of them are designated for use in prison rehabilitation programs in states like Nevada where the inmates train them for sale at auction.
Roman Coleman (Schoenaerts), in the middle of an 11-year sentence for domestic violence, is introduced looking as completely furious as any of those captive horses.
Recently transferred to the Northern Nevada Correctional Center, he has so much contempt for the test being administered by a prison psychologist (Connie Britton) that he can’t even be bothered to answer the questions.
“I’m not good with people,” he admits to no one’s surprise, and so he’s assigned to outdoor maintenance work, including shoveling horse manure.
There he’s attracted to the noise of a horse desperately trying to pound its way out of a locked enclosure. Intrigued by a living being as anxious for freedom as he is, and maybe a little scared, he is drawn to the inmate training program without any idea of how to get in or even what it does.
Helping clue him in are a pair of very different individuals. Henry Davis (Jason Mitchell) is a genial and gregarious fellow convict who shows Roman what is possible.
Then there is Myles, the program’s grizzled, seen-it-all trainer, played by the veteran Bruce Dern as a man who has forgotten more about horses than most people will ever know.
Also intruding on Roman’s life, at least from his point of view, is his young daughter Martha (Gideon Adlon), a pregnant teenager who visits him in prison because she wants him to sign emancipation papers so she can get on with her life. Roman’s response: “Don’t come back here.”
It doesn’t take a psychic to predict that Roman will join the program and that it will make a difference in his life, but it is to “The Mustang’s” credit that the film does not make it easy for him.
For one thing, learning to control a horse turns out to mean learning to control yourself, and patience and self-knowledge are in short supply in Roman’s life.
Instead of simply yelling “listen to me, you hear me you stupid animal,” Roman has to understand mantras like “respect his space and he’ll learn to respect yours.” If repertory double-bills still existed, this one would be a natural fit with the wonderful horse whisperer documentary “Buck.”
Although the core of “The Mustang” — Roman working one on one with his horse Marquis — is as advertised, other elements are not necessarily.
Some of the supporting actors lack the authenticity that Schoenaerts brings to his line readings, and an extraneous subplot about a prison drug ring smuggling the horse tranquilizer ketamine seems to come from another movie.
Though Schoenaerts’ gift for fury is impressive, it is a testimony to his skill that what is most wrenching to watch are Roman’s tortured attempts at verbal apologies, the times when you can see the lonely small boy he must have been peeking out from under that ferocious exterior.
A combination of strange, dark moments with unapologetic sentimental ones, “The Mustang” is impossible to imagine without the actor’s startling work. You might see more polished films in 2019, but you won’t see a better performance.
Rating: R, for language, some violence and drug content
Running time: 1 hour, 36 minutes