‘The Mustang’ Asks Us to Consider What Criminal Justice Reform Really Means

Matthias Schoenaerts plays a prisoner in search of redemption in ‘The Mustang’

“I’m not good with people.” ~ ‘The Mustang’

If someone hurt you, how long must they atone for their sins? At what point does forgiveness come? Does it ever come?

The Mustang (2019) follows Roman (Matthias Schoenaerts), a short-tempered man who has been in prison for 12 years. In a fit of rage, he assaulted his ex-partner and left her permanently brain damaged. His daughter Martha (Gideon Adlon) hasn’t forgiven him. He hasn’t forgiven himself.

He’s placed in a rehabilitation center where prisoners work outdoors to train wild mustangs. They have five weeks to train the mustangs before they’re sold in an auction. Every mustang, Roman is told, should have a name. Roman names his mustang Marquis.

The Mustang is a prison drama set in The Wild West. For all its ties to genre, the film is very much rooted in real life. By the end, we’re shown photos of the prisoners who inspired filmmaker Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre to tell this story, her astonishing directorial debut.

It’s all about control. If Roman can control his anger and stay calm, he might be able to control Marquis as well. If he can’t, both will remain in their cages.

In the film’s most powerful scene, Roman attends anger management counseling with other inmates, and we learn how quickly each of them reacted with violence. One second for one. Five seconds for another. A split second for Roman. A split second loss of control leads to years of imprisonment.

By the end, it was difficult for me to come to terms with the unfairness of it all, what some might call misfortune, what others might call injustice. The injustice of treating human beings like animals. The injustice of putting animals in cages. The injustice of people like you and me not knowing, or not caring, that this is even happening.

When we talk about criminal justice reform, too often we talk about “non-violent” offenders. We can get rid of cash bail, but only for “non-violent” offenders. We can restore voting rights, but only for “non-violent” offenders. We can end mandatory minimums, but only for “non-violent” offenders.

Here is a film that asks us to consider the violent offenders too. Are they not human beings as well?

As Jamiles Lartey of The Marshall Project reports, much of the political discourse around criminal justice reform and its focus on non-violent offenders hasn’t been particularly productive. Lartey explains:

“These conversations have yet to produce comprehensive proposals aimed specifically at violent offenders, who make up roughly half the nation’s prison population. But advocates say reversing mass incarceration is impossible without including them, and the idea should not scare politicians or the public. They point to growing research that indicates most people ‘age out’ of violent crime after their 20s and 30s, and to the fact that many states classify as violent some drug crimes and other offenses most Americans do not consider violent.”

Only recently have some politicians started to change the discourse. Cory Booker, for example, argues that focusing on non-violent offenders alone sends the message that “you don’t think someone is worthy of redemption.”

It’s not just about what we say, but what we do. A report from the Prison Policy Initiative points out, “The staggering number of people incarcerated for violent offenses is not due to high rates of violent crime, but rather the lengthy sentences doled out to people convicted of violent crimes.” So while it’s great that politicians are more careful with their words, a radical change in policy is more meaningful. The Prison Policy Initiative Report describes the problem in more detail:

“These policies include mandatory minimum sentences, ‘three strikes’ laws, truth-in-sentencing laws, the transfer of young people to adult court, sentences to life without possibility of parole, and the end of discretionary parole in many places. These severe sentencing policies dramatically increased the average sentence length and restricted opportunities for release for people convicted of violent offenses, which in turn led to the massive buildup of prison populations around the country.”

Whether or not you agree that a violent offender should get a second chance is your business, but I’d posit that if you don’t, you can’t honestly claim support for criminal justice reform. If you don’t, you can’t honestly claim support for ending the system of mass incarceration.

And if you don’t, why not, and would a film like The Mustang change your mind?

We return to control. The control we have over ourselves — our anger, our violent impulses. The control we have over others — their freedom, their safety.

Roman learns the hard way. The auction does not go well. Marquis, now deemed untrainable, will be sent to slaughter.

In a moment of heart-stopping humanity, Roman risks everything to free Marquis. He cuts through the prison gates and releases his beloved mustang to the wild. The guards come after him with guns and he’s forced to return to his cage.

I still struggle with the unfairness, the misfortune, the injustice.

I still wonder how long someone must atone for their sins and at what point forgiveness comes, if it ever does come.

Follow Instagram @jonalexandernyc

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store