For her first feature, Parisian actor-come-director Laure de Clermont-Tonnere partnered with Robert Redford and hit the desert to make a film about a horse-rehabilitation program in a Nevada prison. It’s a story you couldn’t possibly predict, but after watching the emotionally arresting film Mustang, it would appear that the correctional facility, located on the outskirts of Carson City, is exactly where Laure was meant to be. 

With parents in the French film industry, and having been a child actor, Laure’s life was shaped by French cinema. As a young adult, she pursued acting, but she slowly shifted gears about a decade ago, feeling like directing was her calling. 

Her career began in theatre; it was only when she stumbled upon a story about animal rehabilitation that she was moved to make a film. “I found out about animal therapy by reading an article in a magazine. I was very intrigued about this odd pairing between horses and men in prison, together in this very aggressive environment.” Thus began the journey to create a powerful film that captured this relationship. 

Mustang is based on a real-life program that exists at Northern Nevada Correctional Centre, where prisoners are given access to wild mustang horses in order to help tame the animals and prepare them for auction. In its opening sequence, the film explains that approximately one hundred thousand feral horses roam the western United States. They are carefully monitored and managed to ensure they don’t disrupt farm life or rural areas, but each year, without the ability to properly control their nomadic habitat, many are sent to be euthanized. The program created in the prison system is one way the horses can stay alive. It also provides huge benefits for the inmates, many of whom have been behind bars for over two decades.

Mustang follows the story of Roman (Matthias Schoenaerts), a violent criminal who appears to have zero motivation for acclimatizing to life within the prison walls nor any desire for life beyond it. Often cast into solitary confinement, he forms few friendships and says few words. When a shipment of new mustangs arrives, a prison counsellor assigns Roman to the outdoor programme. At first it’s a move that appears futile, but a bond soon forms between Roman and an unruly stallion, and thus begins a steady transformation for both the inmate and the horse.  

Credit: Focus Features

While Laure grew up riding horses, mustangs are a very different breed. “Riding horses in Paris is not the same as riding in the west of America. I realized I knew nothing about them.” 

To prepare for the film, Laure spent a lot of time interviewing men in prison. “I spent so much time listening to their stories, trying to understand the difference between anger and violence and figure out what the trigger was.” In observing and reading about the horse program, she was incredibly moved. “All this training between the men and the horses was so beautiful and so beneficial. They were healing; they were given responsibility to care for something.”

Unlike the prison system in France, Laure is shocked by the severity of the U.S. prison system. “In the U.S., you are more confined, and there is less hope of a future. What is your life like after you spend twenty-five years in prison? It is not congruent. It’s very unforgiving, as a system, as a process. I think it’s interesting to talk about and focus on the second chance.”

Having been to Sundance in 2014 for her short film Rabbit (also about animal rehabilitation, but a rabbit), Laure was able to connect with Robert Redford. “I knew he created Sundance, but I had no idea how involved he was.” Hearing about Laure’s idea to write and direct a feature about mustangs, as a long-time advocate for the preservation of wild horses, and a lover of horses, Robert was immediately hooked.

Mustang is a satisfying redemption story that closely examines a fascinating bond between man and animal. It forces audiences to question the prison system, all the while moving through the majestic landscape of the spartan Nevada desert. For Laure, the film presents the promise of an exciting future as a filmmaker. 

Mustang opens in select theatres on March 22. Watch the trailer here.