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There is a perceptible fish-in-a-barrel sense that comes with prison-set storytelling. After all, it’s a setting that is an incredible breeding ground for both inter-personal and internal conflict, as it’s not only a hyper-aggressive environment, but also one that has goals of redemption. Of course, these parameters make it so that it’s really only the special titles that stand out – and Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre’s The Mustang is an impressive example.

It’s definitely a high-concept idea, centering on an inmate working within an animal-centric rehabilitation program, but it’s tremendous how much The Mustang evokes from such a simple conception. Driven by an awesome and intense turn from Matthias Schoenaerts, some gritty, emotional storytelling, and gorgeous cinematography, it’s an all-around impressive debut feature from its writer/director, and one of the highlights so far in the first half of 2019.

Inspired by a real program and based on Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre’s short film Rabbit, The Mustang brings us inside the walls of a rural Nevada prison and introduces us to Roman Coleman (Matthias Schoenaerts), a violent convict who isn’t shy expressing his preference for isolation. In order to try and help him, the facility’s psychologist (Connie Britton) signs him up for special duty that sees him training wild mustangs that the penitentiary can then sell at auction. Along with some razzing about his name, he gets support from the head horse trainer (Bruce Dern), and an experienced fellow inmate (Jason Mitchell), but he struggles when his frustration transforms into ferocious rage.

Early days don’t exactly suggest great things for Roman’s future as a horse trainer, and his actions even get him thrown in solitary, but it winds up sparking a fascination within him. While simultaneously trying to reconnect with his daughter (Gideon Adlon), who is planning to move away and start a new life independent of him, he begins to transform himself through his relationship with his mustang, Marquis, and starts to become a better person.

Matthias Schoenaerts has been a star on the rise since his breakout turn in 2011’s Bullhead, and here he puts on one of the most powerful performances of his career – and also an impressively transformative one. The tension featured in the face and muscles of Roman through most of the movie is enough to put a knot in your neck, as the character is essentially a manifestation of a clenched fist. It’s amazing to watch Schoenaerts play with the raw energy that comes packed with that (which gets to the point of scary sometimes), and also incredible to watch his progression through the narrative and to see those knuckles start to relax. It’s an intense experience, as the actor telegraphs his anxiety off the screen, and fully engages you with his redemptive past.

Roman definitely isn’t a character that’s easy to like – after all, he’s a guy who starts punching a wild horse less than half-an-hour into the film – but it’s to the credit of The Mustang’s storytelling how your feelings evolve over the course of the film. It’s not exactly subtle that the practice of taming a wild animal helps tame the tempers of the violence-prone convicts, all of whom became incarcerated because of rash and impulsive decisions, but there is still a wonderful elegance to Roman’s evolving fascination and personal development. In lesser hands it could feel rote, but that’s not the case with Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre and Matthias Schoenaerts here.

For being a film set within one of the most horrific institutions around, The Mustang is also often incredibly stunning visually – contrasting the depressing concrete atmosphere inside the walls of the prison with an awesome western aesthetic beyond them. Not only is the classic correlation between horse riding and freedom a tradition proven as strong as ever in the film, dust swirling in wide shots, but de Clermont-Tonnerre also captures an intimate and magnificent bond between man and animal through tear-inducing close-ups.

Legitimately powerful dramas generally wait until the latter half of the year to make their way to the big screen, but courtesy of a Sundance Film Festival premiere we have The Mustang as an impressive surprise that also delivers a lot to be excited about in the future. Based on what’s presented here, Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre has a striking amount of promise and potential to become a tremendous filmmaker, and whatever comes next will have my attention.

8 / 10 stars
Rating: movie reviewed star rating out of five
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