“Knock them down. Refuse their bargain.”

The Mustang (2019), dir. Rupert Wyatt

Film Review By Taylor Thornburg

In this year’s release The Mustang, an incarcerated convict participates in a rehabilitation program in which he breaks wild horses to be sold at auction. In doing so, he explores the meaning of freedom from the perspective of someone imprisoned behind literal and figurative walls. The Mustang stars Matthias Schoenhaerts (A Bigger Splash, The Racer and the Jailbird) as the convict Roman Coleman, and Jason Mitchell (Straight Outta Compton, Kong: Skull Island) and Bruce Dern (Nebraska, The Hateful Eight) play supporting roles Henry and Myles respectively. The Mustang is director Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre’s feature length debut.

At worst, the acting is wooden, the dialogue stilted. At best, the cast performs capably and delivers performances that welcome the audience into the quiet, meditative confines of a prison’s walls and its lonesome atmosphere. The cast is diverse, and many people of color have notable and well-delivered speaking roles. The cinematography captures the tightness of the space in the prison that it depicts, showcasing the ways in which prison walls cut people off from each other, confine them, and compromise them.

The structure of The Mustang depicts the ways in which prisons compromise space and the people that inhabit it very well. However, it quickly becomes apparent that the film only believes that two kinds of people circulate through them: the “good ones” and the “bad ones.” It concedes that prisons may not be very good places, but it maintains that the economic and political systems that create prisons are good. It asserts that the best thing for prisoners to do is reintegrate into those systems, behave as if systems are good, work like the workers in those systems work, and live along the paths of least resistance within those systems despite the experience of being imprisoned. The Mustang does not posit a world in which prisons failed, but rather a world in which failures circulate through prisons until they learn their lesson and get with the program.

This is The Mustang’s principal failure: it reproduces the belief that societies need authoritarian institutions like prison because some people are bad and liberal capitalism is good. It teaches that “bad people” deserve to be brutalized by prisons until they have neither the strength nor the will to revolt against the economic or political orders that put them there in the first place.

However, this may be too literal of a reading. The meaning of the film could very well be that everyone lives in a compromised space already, and that the best thing to do is empathize and use what little freedom people have to maximize the freedom of others. Freedom is an often tricky and misleadingly applied term, but the egalitarian intent at the heart of this message is faultless. Then again, when something is wrong, why bother bargaining with it? Why bother reforming economic and political systems that compromise space, that compromise people, that brutalize and hurt them? What these systems take is always more than what they give. Knock them down. Refuse their bargain.

For more reviews like this one, listen and subscribe to the Hammer & Camera podcast, available on all podcast platforms, where my co-host Phil and I review and discuss films from a Left point of view.

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