The story tracks Roman as he reluctantly joins the rehab program (his resistance being a narrative given), goaded by his unfailingly patient psychologist-counselor (Connie Britton). The program is run by another professional instigator, Myles, a classically cantankerous old man with a hard crust and 24-karat core who once upon a time would have been played by a grumbling, muttering Walter Brennan. The patent now belongs to Bruce Dern, who grumbles and mutters and squints into the sun in a performance that is as recognizable as the cover of a favorite song. You know every beat and lyric, and it’s pleasurable to watch Dern interpret each one anew.
There’s no John Wayne, the sun around which Brennan sometimes orbited. Even so, Schoenaerts here brings to mind one of those Wayne swaggerers, the kind who tower over movies and other men. Schoenaerts — who excels at hard-body men who yield, to hurt, tenderness and love — affects a slight bob and weave, suggesting a life in the ring. Unexpectedly, Roman often seems beaten down. He has the hunched shoulders and bowed head of the defeated, though sometimes he looks like a boxer heading into the next fight. Even a bowed head can carry a threat, as everything that we have been taught about men and violence reminds us.
By the time the mustang arrives, Roman is about halfway through his 11-year sentence. Theirs isn’t an easy match, partly because it verges on a romantic meet cute that strains narrative credulity and your tolerance for stacked decks. The horse, locked in a shed, is furiously kicking, pounding out a rhythmic S.O.S. that the curious Roman answers. Soon, the two are warily circling each other in a corral under the tutelage of Henry (the winning Jason Mitchell), one of the program’s successes. Roman and the horse — he names him Marquis, pronouncing it Marcus — don’t take to each other, but after a brutal exchange and some more time in solitary for both, they reach an understanding that opens into love.
Now and again, a European filmmaker heads to the American West to re-explore (and of course reconquer) it, often to grim and grimly obvious ends. De Clermont-Tonnerre, by contrast, takes on the western as a milieu and a genre with an appreciable lack of cynicism. Some of her storytelling can be shaky. A predictable death and a resentful teenage daughter (a fine Gideon Adlon) nearly help push the story over the melodramatic edge; and a drug subplot with its easily breached medicine cabinet is distracting.
Yet de Clermont-Tonnerre has an eye for beauty, for swirling dust and resonant silences, and she taps into the soul of this place and its inhabitants even as she reminds you of its terrors. Like Marquis, Roman can sometimes seem like too facile a symbol of the terrifyingly primitive, but he is also never less than effortlessly alive.