In the opening shot of The Mustang, a movie about a program in which wild horses help to help rehabilitate prisoners, takes us to the wilds of Nevada where a helicopter is rounding up free-roaming mustangs. Title cards tell us that 100,000 wild mustangs can be found in the U.S. Some are caught and euthanized; others are sent to prisons where inmates are given a chance to train them for sale at auction. The men and horses bond and both benefit from the arrangement.
Almost from the start, first-time director Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre makes the connection between an angry inmate (Matthias Schoenaerts) and an especially dangerous mustang.
Alienated and hostile, Schoenaerts' Roman Coleman is pushed by a counselor (Connie Britton) to become a part of a small horse-training program. He begins by shoveling manure, not the most attractive of jobs. But it's clear that Roman's ability to train horses depends on developing his capacity for self-control, which is minimal at the outset.
Initially resistant to any suggestion of reform, Roman accepts his role, although he's stripped of it after he violently attacks the horse with which he'll eventually bond. Enlisted to help during a horse-threatening emergency, Roman regains his spot among the horse-tending cons; he's readmitted to this small group by the grizzled old hand (Bruce Dern) who runs the program with tough love.
Before Roman can connect with the mustang -- he names it Marcus -- he must learn that he can't force contact with the animal; he must patiently wait for the horse to accept him.
Most of the action takes place in a remote prison where a corral has been built for the horses, and de Clermont-Tonnerre doesn't neglect the harsher side of convict life, introducing subplots about drugs, a nasty piece of inmate-on-inmate violence and the tenuous relationship between Roman and his pregnant daughter (Gideon Adlon). She wants Roman to sign forms that will allow her to sell his grandfather's California house so that she can get on with her life. He does his best keep her at an emotional distance, but the screenplay eventually gives him a monologue in which he tries to connect with his daughter and we finally learn why Roman has spent 11 years in custody.
If you're thematically inclined it won't be difficult to identify the movie's interest in masculinity, as well as in exploring the often lopsided equation between freedom and self-discipline. In a telling scene, Britton's character asks inmates to estimate the time it took for them to act on the impulse that led them to incarceration. Roman's answer: a split-second.
The Belgian-born Schoenaerts presents Roman as a case study in anger-mismanagement, a man whose eyes burn with fury and whose inner rage threatens to consume him. He's always on the verge of a physical outbreak and it can be frightening to watch him.
The movie clocks in at a fleet 96 minutes, but like a wild horse, The Mustang bucks from scene-to-scene, mostly skipping transitional sequences that might have let the story feel more fully developed.
That said, there's no shaking the unsettling tension of the situation: brutal terrain, the threat of physical violence and an eerie sense of men and animals confined in a prison that has been plopped into the most open of western spaces.