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Netflix’s Latest Hit Is a Movie About Wild Horses and Inmate Rehabilitation

Horse culture is for the people.

Roman shares an affectionate moment with his mustang, Marquis.

When The Mustang came out in 2019, I must have been the only person in my friend group who wanted to see it. I think most of the people I knew saw its narrative coupling of horse culture and the American prison industrial complex, and they automatically wrote it off. But I still gave it a shot, and I ended up loving it—not just for its handling of serious subject matter, but because it’s also just a damn good movie.

So, I was very excited to see not only that Netflix had acquired the rights to the film, but that it’s doing incredibly well on the streaming service thus far. As of this morning, it’s their #3 movie in the U.S.—well-deserved, I say!

If you were hunting for something new to watch and stumbled upon this film, wondering what on Earth it was about, I’ve got you covered. And I can assure you, it’s well worth a watch.

The Mustang (2019)

This film follows the story of Roman (Matthias Schoenaerts), an inmate of 12 years who is nearing the end of his sentence. Roman’s been relocated to a facility in Nevada where they hope to help him make those last few productive strides before letting him go, yet due to his own fears about his behavior, Roman is reluctant to cooperate. However, he impresses his superiors after being seen successfully handling an unruly horse.

As such, they enroll him in the facility’s mustang taming program: a joint initiative between the prison and the Bureau of Land Management, where inmates are paired with a chosen mustang to tame for eventual adoption. Under the instruction of the head rancher, Myles (Bruce Dern), the inmates in the program are taught how to engage wild mustangs and properly undergo the process of “gentling” them.

This proves to be difficult for Roman, whose primary fear within himself is his violent tendencies. The horse he’s paired with, a beautiful buckskin, is by far the most temperamental and aggressive horse in the program, and if you’ve ever been around an agitated horse, you know fully well how frightening they are! Roman, having had no prior experiences with horses, constantly fluctuates between his fear of the situation and his natural response, which is to fight back—as seen in this clip below:

However, Roman—and his mustang, Marquis—consistently grow throughout the movie, not just as individuals but as partners. You can tell that fear still drives them to large degrees, yet over time, their bond becomes something acutely unshakeable.

As well as this, the film is only ever compassionate to both sides, without shying away from the realities of their situations. No, it wasn’t okay for Roman to literally punch a horse, and the horse in question was reacting the only way it knew how after years of living in the wild. But the beauty of The Mustang is in its willingness to confront darkness without judgment, thereby proving that anything, and anyone, can change.

The Mustang’s basis in reality

These kinds of programs do exist in real life! Though they’re still fairly young (having been introduced in the ’80s), they’ve already proven to have a high rate of rehabilitative success amongst violent offenders. A lot of this has to do with the style used to tame these mustangs, the aforementioned “gentling.”

You may have heard the term “breaking a horse.” It’s the most basic term people use when referring to the process of training a horse to be ridden. Nothing is literally broken (one would hope), but the metaphor comes from the “breaking” of its willpower to recognize your own commands as dominant. It’s not nearly as draconian as it sounds, typically, and rest assured, horses naturally seek a leader in any situation, so the process of horse breaking usually just means teaching the horse that you are its leader.

However, mustangs almost always require a softer touch, because they’ve been raised to be aware of things your average barn horse never has to. Some horse breeds are so easy to break that they hardly require much of a hand at all. But mustangs haven’t been raised with big, safe paddocks and an abundance of care. Mustangs have many natural predators and are constantly at risk of the elements. You cannot just walk up to a mustang and put a halter on it—you need to convince it, from the ground up, that you are not a threat, and that your guidance is worth following. Hence, gentling.

The process of taming wild horses is truly fascinating, and I highly recommend watching and reading more material on it simply because it’s cool. (I got really into Sam Van Fleet’s instructional videos at the beginning of quarantine. Go check her out!) Ultimately though, it’s more or less a longer, more thoughtful process of basic horsemanship: when you stop seeing yourself as the horse’s director, and start trying to communicate with it in a language it understands—learning how to assess its behaviors and reacting to it, without bending. That’s why they sent Roman into the ring with Marquis: one of the biggest ways to get a horse to pay attention to you is to literally stop it in its tracks and will it to move elsewhere. But in order to do that properly, you have to speak its language!

This is why these programs tend to work so well. They force participants to slow down and stop thinking from their own point of view, because if they don’t, there’s a good chance they’re going to get hurt. Horses can sense your anxieties and animosities, and learning how to keep those feelings in check is crucial to proper gentling. However, the process is also restorative to the humans in question, since it reaps incredibly rewarding results. Inmates are often heartbroken upon reaching their first adoption because they grow so attached to their horses. It’s truly a powerful thing, bonding with a horse, since you’re basically convincing a prey animal with the capacity to kill that you can be trusted; I can only imagine those feelings are heightened with a horse you fully train yourself, let alone a mustang!

The beauty of The Mustang

Bearing all of this in mind, I truly think The Mustang is one of those films that says so much without making it obvious, and it does so fantastically. Both Roman and Marquis are stuck in a system of captivity, and this opportunity for both of them is both liberating and incredibly difficult, almost dangerously so. They have many setbacks along the way that are par for the course in anyone’s process of rehabilitation, equine or otherwise.

However, as said before, the movie is decidedly un-American in how empathetically it tells its story. It neither makes a martyr out of Roman nor condemns him; it is neither hyperbolically saccharine nor punishingly cruel. The Mustang takes a grounded, humanistic approach to its portrayal of prisoners, the sort of approach I think we so desperately need more of.

And if nothing else, what can I say? I’m a horse girl and I love a good horse movie. And this is truly one of the better horse movies I’ve seen in my lifetime. It showcases a method of horsemanship that I am personally very fond of and have gotten a lot out of, and it proved that the value of working with horses is not (and should not be) exclusive to upper-class lifestyles.

If you’re in need of a new movie to watch, I really can’t recommend The Mustang enough. Netflix did well in nabbing this one.

(featured image: Focus Features)

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Madeline (she/her) is a staff writer with a focus on AANHPI and mixed-race representation. She enjoys covering a wide variety of topics, but her primary beats are music and gaming. Her journey into digital media began in college, primarily regarding audio: in 2018, she started producing her own music, which helped her secure a radio show and co-produce a local history podcast through 2019 and 2020. After graduating from UC Santa Cruz summa cum laude, her focus shifted to digital writing, where she's happy to say her History degree has certainly come in handy! When she's not working, she enjoys taking long walks, playing the guitar, and writing her own little stories (which may or may not ever see the light of day).