The Mustang: Freedom at the cost of confinement
Updated: Jul 1, 2019
Unlike most action-packed, southern cowboy films, The Mustang will make you think differently about the bond between a man and his horse. It will also make you feel differently about the experience of incarceration in America and the men beneath their orange jumpsuits.
The film begins from the perspective of the mustangs. You hear what they hear, see what they see, and your mind becomes numb in their simplicity. The life of a wild mustang feels distant but imaginable. Then, amidst this serenity, the horses’ ears flutter backward as a strange but irritable ringing arises. Suddenly, a terrible whistling pierces the faded turquoise that stretches above. The camera pans to a birds-eye view, or in this instance a helicopter-view. We see the faded field with hundreds of horses. They scatter in all directions. Teams of mustangs fiercely gallop, sprinting away from the approaching threat. Then enters the flying machine that scared the animals. The helicopter follows and chases them, until they are led into a trap.
This trap feels symbolic of the film’s overarching theme of freedom. The concept of one’s liberation is frustrating for Roman Coleman, a prisoner at the Nevada correctional facility. We quickly learn he doesn’t get along with people well.
This is notable when he sits down at the wrong table at visiting hours. “Who the hell are you?” says another girl with dark black hair, who isn’this daughter.
“I’m over here,” mumbles his actual daughter.
Despite this, Roman has a trusting, harmless presence that makes him likeable. His relationship with his daughter is rocky, but his relationship with himself is what really needs work. He’s been incarcerated for twelve years, and the thought of reentering society with the general population is a daunting one. He soon finds a new window of hope from an isolation cell. From this window he overlooks the horses.
The Nevada facility runs a horse rehabilitation therapy program, which we later learn are based on real programs in the U.S. today. The opportunity allows formerly violent inmates to train and work with wild horses over a twelve-week period. Some of the horses will go on to help protect the U.S. border. How the mustangs are stolen from the wild and trained against their will, however, makes it hard to support the program. At the end the prisoners auction them off, and we see the pain it causes the men to say goodbye.
Roman, our cowboy in the ruff, is immediately drawn to a mustang that is uncontrollable, volatile, and reckless. The mustang is trapped in a small, confined space, desperate for its freedom. Roman takes a liking or sympathy to the animal, maybe because he sees a bit of himself in the creature. During his time with his horse, who he later names Marcus, Roman learns trust and patience. But more importantly, he learns how to smile again, because Marcus gives him purpose and passion.
“What a business,” laughs the director of the program, as he watches Roman learn to control the flailing mustang.
Amidst the repetitive drudgery of prison life and vast barren fields are scenes filled with tension and chaos. In these moments, the film is loud and sometimes haunting. Theyshed light on the pain and fear of caged animals—mustangs and men alike.
One of the counselors asks the prisoners in a classroom therapy session, “How long between the thought of the crime and the actual crime?”
The answer was within seconds.
The horses teach these men patience and self-control. When Roman is handed a new uniform— a pair of jeans and jean jacket to replace his everyday orange suit—he is literally handed dignity and respect.
Roman’s daughter once told him he couldn’t take care of anything, but Roman learns to care for Marcus in a way he never thought he could. They both learn to depend on one another and this brings to the film a heartening assurance.
In the end though, Roman realizes they’re both caged and confined. The only difference is one can save the other.