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THE MUSTANG REARS UP AND WON’T LET GO

Matthias Schoenaerts has a formidable screen presence. If you saw him in Bullhead (the Belgian film that put him on the map), Rust and Bone, or Far from the Madding Crowd, you know that I mean. The effect of his silent presence is put to great use again in The Mustang, but this time he meets his match in a fiery horse.

Director and co-writer Laurent de Clermont-Tonnere has made excellent use of her leading man and his equine costar. The screenplay is based on a real-life situation: thousands of mustangs roam the American west and their population has to be thinned out, one way or another. Prisoners in a number of Western states are given the chance to tame these animals so they can be sold at auction and put to good use. This not only benefits the horses (and the Bureau of Land Management) but gives prisoners a sense of purpose and self-worth.

A brief synopsis makes the film seem hopelessly formulaic, but rest assured it is not. Schoenaerts starts out as a taciturn criminal who can barely bring himself to speak a word to prison counselor Connie Britton. Faced with an animal whose temper is even more explosive than his own, he eventually comes to respect the horse—and the challenge of communicating with him.

Everything about The Mustang seems organic, from the locations to the performances by the leading man, as well as Britton, Jason Mitchell, and the always-welcome Bruce Dern, in a plum role as a grizzled cowboy who’s been around horses his whole life.

Filmmaker de Clermont-Tonnere told a similar tale in his short subject Rabbit (2014), which earned her a berth at the Sundance Institute. That’s when Robert Redford signed on as an executive producer for this feature-length expansion of the story. Screenplay credit is shared by the director, Mona Fastvold and Brock Norman Brock in collaboration with Benjamin Charbit.

The Mustang tells its richly textured story in just 96 minutes. No more is required; it is one of the most satisfying movies I’ve seen this year.

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