“THE MUSTANG” — 3½ stars — Matthais Schoenaerts, Gideon Adlon, Josh Stewart, Bruce Dern, Jason Mitchell; R (language, some violence and drug content); in general release; running time: 96 minutes
SALT LAKE CITY — “The Mustang” focuses on a unique program in several U.S. states where prison inmates train wild horses for auction. But Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre’s movie, which was featured at this year's Sundance Film Festival, goes well beyond that to show a moving bond between a hardened, incarcerated felon and an especially rowdy mustang.
Set in Nevada, the film opens with a desert roundup that delivers a mustang named Marcus to a corral adjacent to Ely State Prison, where Roman Coleman (Matthais Schoenaerts) is 12 years into a sentence for a violent crime that shattered his family — including his grade-school-age daughter. Now a teenager — and a few months away from having a child of her own — Martha (Gideon Adlon) has come to the prison to convince her father to grant her emancipation.
Coleman’s relationship with his daughter is just one example of his struggles to connect with others. He goes out of his way to spend most of his time in solitary confinement — which makes sense when you consider that his general population roommate Dan (Josh Stewart) is running the drug trade in the prison.
Things start to look up, though, when Coleman discovers the horse training program, which eventually leads to Marcus. Under the cautious direction of a surly old coot named Myles (Bruce Dern), Coleman pensively works his way into the program and learns the ropes from another friendly inmate named Henry (Jason Mitchell).
The program offers Coleman a sense of purpose his life has been lacking, and it lets him swap his orange jumpsuit for jeans and a pair of cowboy boots. Unfortunately, it also gives him access to a range of horse tranquilizers, and it isn’t long before Dan starts using Coleman’s daughter as leverage to pull him into the prison’s underworld.
The parallels between Coleman and Marcus are pretty obvious, but the overlap between the horse training and the prison drama make an engaging combination. Dern demonstrates his veteran chops with a grizzled performance as Myles, but Schoenaerts really shines as the hardened Coleman, betraying just enough life in his eyes to suggest a glimmer of hope in his soul.
Director de Clermont-Tonnerre makes the most of her scenery — the Nevada desert is the perfect desolate and beautiful backdrop to mirror the plight of “The Mustang’s” principal characters. Out quite literally in the middle of nowhere, “The Mustang” seems to take place in a world and time of its own, shaded in dusty oranges and browns and almost untouched by its surroundings.
While you might be able to find better horse movies — and certainly more elaborate prison movies — “The Mustang” draws from both genres to create a moving portrait of a man trying to overcome his failures and find even a hint of purpose in his life. It’s not quite as inspirational as the first genre or as oppressive as the latter, but in many ways, it’s the best of both.
Rating explained: “The Mustang” draws an R rating from intermittent profanity and a few scenes of brutal, if not graphic violence.