Even as people talk about replacing automobiles, once known as “horseless carriages,” with self-driving cars, few American images are as iconic as the cowboy and his horse riding alone across the prairie. Two powerful new independent movies vividly explore both the ongoing appeal, and harsh realities, faced by modern young Western men whose lives revolve around horses.
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The Rider is the second film Chloé Zhao has made at South Dakota’s Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, following her critically praised Songs My Brother Taught Me. Although The Rider is a scripted drama, Zhao cast all non-professional actors playing characters closely modeled on their real lives. As the film begins, young rodeo rider and horse trainer Brady Blackburn (Brady Jandreau) is attempting to recover from a traumatic brain injury. Brady’s doctor has warned him that even riding a horse, least of all the head-rattling intensity of rodeo riding, could have disastrous consequences. For Brady, whose life is built around his empathic bond with horses and lives in comparative poverty in an area with few economic opportunities, the options are limited. He’s torn between pursuing his lifelong dreams, which will almost certainly have catastrophic results, and enduring an existence of meaningless drudgery. The inner complexities of this outwardly simple story are strongly evoked by the subtlety and complete commitment of the actors, while stunningly beautiful imagery of Brady and his horse on the South Dakota plains brings out the spiritual allure of a lifestyle that many might consider unendurably austere.
Unlike Brady, the protagonist of Lean on Pete is a newcomer to working with horses, but the effect on his life is equally dramatic. Charley (Charlie Plummer) is a teenager living with his factory-worker single dad (Steve Zahn) in Oregon. Charley’s life is transformed when he wanders into a nearby stable and falls in with Del (Steve Buscemi), a cantankerous horse trainer struggling to make ends meet in low-end stakes races where the winner goes home with a modest cash prize and horses that don’t can get sold to Mexican slaughterhouses. Soon, Charley is helping to care for Del’s two racehorses, forming a particular bond with Pete, the older of the two. When Charley is struck by a series of sudden traumatic events, he’s compelled to take Pete on a seemingly impossible 1,000-mile journey to Wyoming that propels both the boy and his horse toward an uncertain future. After wowing audiences with a mesmerizing portrait of a long-married couple dealing with hidden secrets in his highly acclaimed film 45 Years, filmmaker Andrew Haigh returns with a mesmerizing vision of a young man seeking home, family and love.
Interestingly, these two films that draw powerfully on the still-resonant imagery of the “Old West” were each directed by foreign-born filmmakers, one Chinese, the other British. This seems to have given a crucial bit of distance to balance out their deep immersion in the worlds they’re exploring, and allowed them to capture the universal themes in these deeply American stories.