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Untamed man, horse bond in ‘Mustang’

This image released by Focus Features shows Matthias Schoenaerts in a scene from ‘The Mustang’. (AP)

Almodovar walks Cruz, Banderas down memory lane

We don’t find out our protagonist’s name for quite some time in “The Mustang”, the feature debut of French writer-director Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre.

All we know at first is what we see and what Belgian actor Matthias Schoenaerts projects. A psychologist played by Connie Britton, in a brief but impactful role, tries to get a sense of his mental state having been in and out of solitary confinement in a rural Nevada penitentiary a number of times, but he’s not interested in playing along, or even trying.

“I’m not good with people,” growls Schoenaerts as he hits her panic button to end the session.

Schoenaerts is a commanding presence, and usually a quite empathetic one in films like “Rust and Bone” and “A Bigger Splash”, but here with a shaved head and a rage simmering beneath his nearly dead eyes, he’s downright terrifying. His identity, you realize, is that of a prisoner. He doesn’t think about his past, his future or his needs. He merely exists. He even rebuffs the young pregnant woman (Gideon Adlon) who comes to visit. (It’s his daughter, you discover, but even that is left ambiguous for a moment).

It’s not until he’s assigned to manure duty as part of the correctional center’s wild horse training program that a light even starts to come back on, partly because the head of the program, Myles (Bruce Dern) treats the inmates like human employees, not criminals. He even asks our protagonist his name: Roman Coleman. The significance of naming will come back in this brief, gorgeous film about untamed and forgotten outcasts. It’s probably worth mentioning here that the themes aren’t exactly subtle, but that doesn’t make them any less effective.

This is a real program in which inmates, many with no equine experience, tame wild horses for eventual adoption and sale to the public.

Roman, of course, takes to the craziest horse. Perhaps it’s the first time he’s actually felt smaller or less powerful than a living creature. And with the encouragement of a fellow inmate, Henry (the always compelling Jason Mitchell), he starts the long process of “gentling” the horse. He’ll eventually even give it a name – Marquis, which he sees in a contraband equestrian magazine he traded for in the prison, but which he pronounces “Marcus”.

Revelation

There’s a sin in his past that’s never even alluded to, of course. It’s why he’s in there after all. Does no one know, you wonder? Or perhaps it’s too horrific for words. It’s revealed eventually, late in the film and not unlike that pivotal revelation in “Paris, Texas”.

Even with its unusually restrained running time, “The Mustang” is a powerful and emotional journey framed by gorgeous sun-soaked shots of the stark Nevada landscape. I just wish there was a little more character development for the supporting players, like Myles and Henry, and the prison’s rotten apple Dan (Josh Stewart), who feels more like a lazy screenwriting construct than an actual part of the world we’ve gotten to know.

But Clermont-Tonnerre has established herself as a filmmaker to watch with “The Mustang”, and has also made the most compelling case yet that Schoenaerts can not only handle an American accent, but excel with it too.

“The Mustang”, a Focus Features release, is rated R by the Motion Picture Association of America for “language, some violence and drug content.” Running time: 96 minutes. Three stars out of four.

Also:

MADRID: Oscar-winning Spanish filmmaker Pedro Almodovar premiered his retrospective drama “Pain and Glory” in Madrid on Wednesday, reuniting actors Penelope Cruz and Antonio Banderas, who had risen to Hollywood stardom after starting in his movies.

The autobiographical narrative, where Banderas plays Almodovar’s present-day tormented alter ego, and Cruz his mother at the time of his youth, wraps up a trilogy which includes the 1987 “Law of Desire” and 2004 “Bad Education”.

The 69-year-old screenwriter and director, whose films often use nonlinear plots and feature gay and trans-sexual characters, returns to the big screen circuit after a three-year hiatus on March 22, when his 21st movie will be released in Spain.

European and US release dates are yet to be confirmed, Almodovar’s El Deseo production company told Reuters.

“It was a relief, but it is a dangerous thing to play with your own life and turn it into fiction” Almodovar said of making the film while standing on the red carpet before the screening.

Banderas, 58, and Cruz, 44, were previously billed together in Almodovar’s 2013 eccentric comedy “I’m So Excited”, which received mixed or average reviews.

The elegiac “Pain and Glory” focuses on various stages in the life of a film director, the relationship with his mother, romances, and the emotional distress of not knowing whether he will be able to keep directing films.

“All the actresses I meet in Hollywood ask me what it’s like to collaborate with Pedro and what they have to do to work with him, and I always tell them the same thing: learn Spanish,” said Cruz, who in 2006 became the first Spanish actress to be nominated for an Oscar in the Best Actress category for her role in Almodovar’s 2006 drama “Volver”. (Agencies)

By Lindsey Bahr

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