I had never seen Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre’s work as director, but may I be the first to recommend that she quit the acting game and pour all of her youthful energy into directing.

Here we have “The Mustang,” written with Brock Norman Brock, directed by Clermont-Tonnerre and starring one of our finest modern actors, Matthias Schoenaerts, known here as “Roman,” in a gripping story about a prison in Nevada where a system is in progress involving hardened inmates bonding with wild mustangs.

The film begins with the thunder of hundreds of hooves, while under a burning Nevada sun, helicopters roar over the dust-clouded desert, herding wild mustangs for miles and then into pens on the prison yards. Apparently this has been going on for years, and was focused on in John Huston’s 1961 “The Misfits” with Clark Gable and Marilyn Monroe.

It seems that more than 100,000 mustangs roaming free in the wild are being captured and euthanized to lower the overpopulation.

A few hundred or so are culled from the herd to be slaughtered, and a few of the lucky are given to be broken and trained by convict cowboys.

These “classes” will be strictly taught by an old grisly cowboy, “Myles” (a perfectly gnarly old Bruce Dern). Once broken into civil behavior, they are then sold at auction to law enforcement groups and ranchers. The saddest moments are when we watch these convict wranglers, Roman among them, watching the horses they trained and have bonded with being sold and taken away.

From the opening moments, we watch the horses as simply a herd of beautiful, wild animals lost in clouds of dust, but then the focus shifts to “Roman” and the horse whom he names “Marcus” that he’s given to break. It suddenly becomes a love story, one of redemption, the story of two wild beings, both caught up by the indifferent authorities, both put in cages, both full of fury and anger.

The scene where Roman meets Marcus is a classic that almost ends before it starts. It’s easy to see that both players, each a rebel, are trapped in dark boxes, viciously stomping, snorting and kicking so furiously that both seem sure to die violent deaths.

Then something happens between the “lovers,” and Roman loses it. He is taken from the program and put in anger management classes; Marcus is sealed in a wooden cage.

Others float into the drama. A young, pregnant girl comes to the visiting room. She has a paper for Roman to sign. He does and then commands her never to come there again. We know she will, and secrets will be told.

All players, guards, convicts, visitors and staff are perfectly cast and well placed in Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre’s beautifully wrought film.

But the film belongs to Matthias Schoenaerts, an astonishing talent we first saw as a Putin-like KGB in “Red Sparrow,” and as Marion Cotillard’s lover in “Rust and Bones.” Here, in “Mustangs,” he evokes the oven that was Marlon Brando, and the whisper that was Montgomery Clift. His gift is this: We will see him in the upcoming “The Sound of Philadelphia” and “The Laundromat,” and we will not recognize him. In the new world of film populated by rehashed pretty faces, Schoenaerts is a welcome visitor to our screens.

J.P.  Devine, of Waterville, is a former stage and screen actor.


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