"I'm not good with people," says Roman (Matthias Schoenaerts), a convict in a rural Nevada prison who's required to participate in an "outdoor maintenance" program as part of his state-mandated social rehabilitation.
That proves to be an understatement. The man barely speaks to fellow inmates and appears constantly pissed off. He regularly winds up in solitary confinement on account of his behavior.
As the central character in The Mustang, a compelling new drama by first-time director Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre, Roman struggles to deal with his violent past. Working with horses proves to be particularly useful.
Though much of the movie shows the harsh realities of life in prison, the film also advocates for some semblance of redemption. A hit at this year's Sundance Film Festival, where it premiered in January, the movie opens on Friday at the Cedar Lee Theatre.
Roman first lands a gig shoveling manure, but a veteran trainer (Bruce Dern) and a fellow convict (Jason Mitchell) help him get into the outdoor program's selective wild horse training section. As part of that program, prisoners rehabilitate wild mustangs, so they can be sold at auction.
Roman gets assigned to one particularly wild horse that, like him, has been sent to isolation for its violent and anti-social behavior. Taming the steed proves to be extremely difficult. Roman and the horse get into a skirmish, and Roman winds up back in solitary confinement after he hits the horse.
As a result of his cooperation during a thunderstorm, Roman gets reinstated as a horse trainer. He has a mere four weeks to try to get the animal ready for auction, a daunting task given the creature's unruly behavior.
Schoenaerts gives an exceptional performance as a quick-tempered, introverted convict who has to learn to tame his inner demons and come to terms with the way his horrible crime has devastated his daughter's life, and the scenes with the horses are really remarkable simply because of the amount of training it must've taken to get horses and actors to work so well together.
Based on a real-life program that pairs prisoners with wild mustangs, the film ultimately makes the case that the program provides hope for both humans and horses. Stick around for the credits to see some snapshots of real-life criminals with the horses they've trained.