Roman Coleman (Matthias Schoenaerts), a man convicted of a violent crime 12 years earlier, is still unable to get along in the prison population; he continually ends up in solitary confinement. Angry and mostly silent, he prefers to be isolated from the rest of the community, explaining with some understatement, “I’m not good with people.”
The Nevada prison to which he’s been transferred has a horse-training program. Prisoners work with wild mustangs in the hopes of taming them and selling them at auction; the proceeds from the auction fund the program. When Roman is put on outdoor maintenance as part of his social rehabilitation, rancher Myles (Bruce Dern) asks him to become a horse trainer, in spite of a rocky beginning.
There are lots of stories of animals redeeming people who have lost hope. Sometimes the writing of this one leaves a bit to be desired. So why see it?
The reason is the remarkable performance of Matthias Schoenaerts. He plays Roman with such power—brooding, angry, and still somehow sympathetic. He is a dangerous man; he is also vulnerable and in pain. At the core, he is a human being, and you want to see him somehow overcome. Marcus, the intractable horse he takes on, is difficult to train, and the film draws visual parallels between the wild horse and Roman.
Roman’s daughter, Martha, keeps in contact with Roman, but her expectations of him are understandably low, and she is ready to move on with her life. He has offered her very little over the years, and he’s caused her so much pain. Their relationship is difficult, and yet there is a glimmer of hope.
In a culture that encourages us to stick to our own factions, to draw lines between ourselves and those we disagree with, and to shake off the people who hurt us, the idea of finding value and humanity in someone who is violent, angry, and damaged is countercultural. We tend to think of incarceration in terms of locking “them” up and throwing away the key.
Instead, The Mustang encourages viewers to see the humanity in prisoners, even violent offenders. There is no easy fix. Roman has a lot of things he needs to work through, and he needs to make amends, something he seems wholly unequipped to do. Redemption will look different for different people, and the process for Roman will be hard and painful. Still, this film gives a glimpse of what restorative justice could look like, and it challenges our ideas of who “hardened criminals” are and what they are capable of becoming.
The belief that even violent offenders are created in the image of God is what led Calvin College to offer a college degree program to inmates of the Handlon Correctional Facility in Ionia, Mich. It’s what inspires the people at 70x7 Life Recovery (formerly the Criminal Justice Chaplaincy) and many other Christians who support and participate in prison ministries. And it should push the rest of us to remember those behind bars as well.
Rated R for language and some violence and drug use, The Mustang stays honest to prison life and is best for adults and older teens. On disc now. (Focus Features)