Two films have come out in recent weeks that are portraits of young men in the American West, made by outsiders. Chloé Zhao is from China and this is now the second film she has made examining life on Native American reservations. Andrew Haigh is from the North of England and this is something of a departure for him, as he is best known for ‘Weekend’ and ‘Looking’, which both follow the gay community. Both of these films feature horses prominently and this made me fearful to watch them. I don’t deal with animal peril well in films and get very emotionally invested in horses on film. However, I am mostly glad that I overcame this hurdle and gave these two films a chance. The scenery and locations are stunning and really need to be seen on a big screen, if you have the opportunity to do so.
Chloé Zhao has a unique way of working; she found the location and the community that she wanted to work with first and the story and characters arose from this. ‘The Rider’ treads a fine line between documentary and fiction; it is perhaps closest to ‘constructed reality television’, in that the ‘characters’ and scenarios are real, but they have been given dialogue. The 19-year-old protagonist Brady really did have a bad accident in the rodeo and was really recovering as Zhao filmed him. His real father and sister play his father and sister in the film and the ‘acting’ is unusual because of this.
‘Lean on Pete’ is a more traditional narrative film, it follows a 16-year-old boy (Charlie Plummer) who has moved around the country with his single father a lot and has wound up in Oregon. He gets a summer job working with racehorse owner/trainer Del (Steve Buscemi) and forms an attachment to Lean on Pete – an old, tired horse who is on his way out. The always-wonderful Chloë Sevigny plays a jockey who has to remind Charlie that the horses are there to do a job and earn money, they are not pets. Charlie makes the decision to steal Pete and attempts to take him to Wyoming to be reunited with his Aunt.
‘The Rider’ very much focuses on the devastating after-effects of rodeo riding. Not just with the main character, Brady (who has a serious skull injury) but also his best friend Lane, who has suffered brain damage. The allure of the horses and the rodeo is palpable because they are beautifully shot and the appeal to the young people who live on the isolated South Dakota reservation is clear. The risks are great but the rewards can also be big, not just financially, but as a means of escape. Brady has a gift for working with animals, particularly training wild horses, yet to be broken in. ‘The Rider’ is a soulful examination of masculinity and how these young men are defined by their physical prowess. When that is under threat, the devastation is clear.
‘Lean on Pete’ very much has a three-act structure and for me, the first act (with Steve Buscemi and Chloë Sevigny) is by far the most successful. The middle section, which follows Charlie and Pete wondering the landscape is beautiful but a little cringe-worthy in places as Charlie treats Pete as a confidante. Then something takes place that I found hard to recover from and Charlie meets Silver (Steve Zahn), a fellow homeless man. I like Zahn in general, but his acting style feels out-of-step with the rest of the film. The film gets more ridiculous, plot-wise towards the end and I didn’t like it as much as the start. Charlie Plummer, however, gives an incredible performance and I’m excited to see what he does next.
What Chloé Zhao has achieved with ‘The Rider’ is a stunning feat and I cannot wait to see where she will go with her career next. Her gonzo style of film-making is so interesting and unique, I would like to see her turn her lens onto different communities and see what she draws out of them. ‘Lean on Pete’ was, for me, a much more sensitive portrayal of the American West by an outsider than ‘Three Billboards’ (which was offensively disastrous, for me). Again, I’m very interested to see where Haigh goes in his career next. If you are able to catch either of these films on the big screen still, you should absolutely take the chance to see the stunning American landscape portrayed by two extremely talented filmmakers.