The Mustang - Still 1
Credit: Tara Violet Niami/Focus Features

“I’m not good with people,” Roman Colman (Matthias Schoenaerts) mumbles early on in The Mustang. That’s a fair understatement. Newly transferred to a Nevada state penitentiary, Roman is stoic to the point of insentience: a seething, silent powder keg who can hardly be bothered to acknowledge other people even exist — until he explodes in sudden bursts of fury, slamming his fists against skin or concrete or whatever’s nearest.

So when a well-intentioned administrator (Connie Britton) helps get him into a program breaking the wild horses that run free in the nearby desert, it doesn’t seem promising; how can one feral animal tame another? That’s where a fellow inmate (Mudbound’s excellent Jason Mitchell) and a grizzled trainer (Bruce Dern) come in; it’s their job to draw Roman out, one painstaking paddock session at a time.

First-time feature filmmaker Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre brings a gorgeous, wide-open sparseness to her visual storytelling (it makes sense that Robert Redford, the original Sundance Kid, is listed as an executive producer), but it’s largely Schoenaerts’ movie to carry.

And the Belgian-born actor is immensely watchable, a coiled force whose monosyllabic responses — he squints more than he speaks — carry so much weight that when he finally gives a climactic speech to his estranged daughter (Blockers’ Gideon Adlon), it feels less like a dialogue than a dam break. Mustang’s tone can come off as too hard-baked, a minor-key study in tortured masculinity; but the cracks that it shows are worth waiting for. B+

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