There are moments when this small, thoughtful, deeply emotional, beautifully made film seems to go off into a few too many tangents rather than sticking with its main narrative. But, to its credit, it keeps returning to its main themes concerning the need for and importance of freedom ... in a variety of forms.

The central story is a study of two wild, unpredictable creatures: A tough, longtime prisoner and the wild horse of the film’s title that comes into his life, and the relationship that develops between them. The prisoner is Roman (Belgian actor Matthias Schoenaerts, who played the lead role of Gabriel in “Far from the Madding Crowd”). He’s a quiet, brooding man who’s been incarcerated for 12 years and hardly bothers to speak. He’s just arrived at a desert prison complex in Nevada where, after having spent a stretch in solitary, is about to be put back into the general population, even though he quietly mumbles to a prison psychologist, “I’m not good with people.” The mustang, named Marcus late in the film, is one of the many thousands of horses that run wild in open areas of the U.S. But as part of population control, he’s one of those that have been rounded up by the government and sent to a prison for training, the hope being that prisoners can break them, get them in shape, and they’ll then be auctioned off to police departments and border patrol agencies.

This particular story is fictional, but the program is real.

Roman, a forlorn look etched onto his face, gets an outside work assignment cleaning up horse manure. But he’s curious about the banging sounds coming from a small shed, and upon looking inside he sees a wild horse cooped up, kicking at the walls - another prisoner in solitary.

Also curious is Myles (Bruce Dern), the crusty old horse trainer who runs the program. When he sees Roman staring in wonderment at the horse, his intuition tells him that this guy should be doing more than shoveling you-know-what; he should be in the training program. Now, right there is plentiful material for a good story, but it’s also around the point in the film where it all starts expanding. Myles’ estranged daughter Martha (Gideon Adlon) comes to visit him but, like father, like daughter, she doesn’t have much to say, nor do they have a good relationship.

Myles: “Why are you here?”

Martha: “I just need you to sign this.” He does.

Myles: “Don’t come back here.”

But there are also talkative folks at the prison. Another inmate, Henry (Jason Mitchell), knows his way around the training program, and chattily takes Roman under his wing, suggesting that he give his assigned horse some space, and never to look him in the eye,

But then more drama enters the picture, and the script veers into prison drama territory, taking a hard look at prison life, eventually exploring rampant drug usage and the constant possibility of violence breaking out.

Still, it keeps returning to the man and his horse. Roman carries lots of pent-up anger and, in a difficult-to-watch sequence, takes it out on Marcus when he won’t obey commands (relax, no horses were hurt). Actually, there are about a dozen other inmates training horses, but the film’s focus stays on Roman and Marcus. With only four weeks till the auction, when all horses must be ready to go, Marcus is still jittery and Roman’s patience is wearing thin. In the blink of an eye, it’s down to two weeks. Giving nothing away here, it’s safe to reveal that something’s got to change ... and it does. At the same time, most of the film’s disparate story elements enter their wrapping up stages, and then it’s the day of the Nevada State Inmate Auction which, if this was a sports film, would be the equivalent of “the big game.”

The drama at this juncture is central to Roman and Marcus, who have both come a long way. Yet the nicely written, expertly presented ending doesn’t have even a hint of cliché to it. It involves the futures of both protagonists and, as suggested at the top, is all about freedom.

Ed Symkus writes about movies for More Content Now. He can be reached at esymkus@rcn.com.

“The Mustang”
Written by Mona Fastvold, Brock Norman Brock, Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre
Directed by Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre
With Matthias Schoenaerts, Jason Mitchell, Bruce Dern, Gideon Adlon
Rated R