Matthias Schoenaerts propels exquisite drama ‘The Mustang’

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A tightly coiled ball of rage by the name of Roman Coleman (Matthias Schoenaerts) meets his match training a wild horse in this indie drama from French filmmaker Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre.

Schoenaerts’ Roman, a prison inmate who brusquely tells Connie Britton’s social worker he’s “not good with people,” is assigned to manure-shoveling duty in the stalls where horses are kept, but can’t stay away from a boarded-up barn with a mustang furiously kicking its walls. Based on the real-life Wild Horse Inmate Program, select prisoners in his facility work with captured horses, whose population in the wild has been deemed perilously high, to help ready them for public auction.

You can spot the parallels with Roman from the start, but “The Mustang” never delves into easy melodrama or cliche. There’s sparse dialogue; much of the film simply bears witness to Roman’s halting progress, with the help of fellow trainer Henry (Jason Mitchell of “Mudbound”) and the program’s no-BS director (a perfectly cast Bruce Dern).

This is Clermont-Tonnerre’s feature directorial debut, but her 2014 short “Rabbit” explored similar terrain with a story about a female inmate. She captures exquisite, visceral moments of connection — as well as terrifying disconnection — between Roman and his horse, Marquis. Gideon Adlon (“Blockers”) is also a quiet standout as Roman’s daughter, who visits with great reluctance.

But it’s Schoenaerts, one of this generation’s finest actors, who makes “The Mustang” a moving look at human potential for redemption and rehabilitation.

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