Two new films released in April, Andrew Haigh’s Lean on Pete and Chloé Zhao’s The Rider, take place in the American West and contain plenty of obvious signifiers: rustic communities, wide open spaces, horses. Yet neither really feels like a Western. When I asked both directors (in separate interviews) if their films could be categorized in the genre, both expressed hesitation.
“Define ‘Western,’” Zhao earnestly replied. “I think it definitely overlaps in themes with Westerns. It features cowboys, but I don’t have a lot of knowledge of Westerns.”
Haigh, however, was a little more skeptical. “I don’t think so,” he said when asked the same question. “I liked how the novel [written by Willy Vlautin, which Haigh adapted for the screen] played around with ideas of Western genre — he’s got a horse and heading off into the wilderness. But it was almost kind of an anti-Western to me.”
The spirit of the Western, a genre whose popularity in the early days of cinema spoke to the confidence of the American century, has long since departed the region of the country. In the old Western, American ideals and strength triumphed over nature, native populations, and general lawlessness. Their ethos was the embodiment of Manifest Destiny, which soon left the terrestrial domain and inserted itself into sci-fi. Some critics and academics speculate that these same ideas are now best expressed through the superhero genre, a hypothesis Zhao supports. “It’s about creating myth, shaping identities of who we are,” she said. “Even in small art-house films, there is a heroism creating these characters where we can see ourselves reflected.”
Both Lean on Pete and The Rider survey the landscape of the land that myth left behind. Using techniques of neorealism and docudrama, respectively, the films provide an unvarnished look at the lives of struggling Western boys that feel light years separated from the Technicolor or CinemaScope adventures of decades past. With their distinct lenses on characters facing diminishing prospects, Haigh and Zhao provide a striking two-pronged look at how American masculinity has adapted to meet the stark conditions.
Brady Blackburn, protagonist of The Rider, clings to the archetype of the cowboy, unable to shake its power and accept a life that does not trade on his physical strength and brawn. He speaks grandly about God’s purpose for people — and for a cowboy, it’s to ride. Zhao doesn’t take this as a sign that Brady lacks resilience. Some people are able to shed one identity and quickly assume another, but others are “built chemically different,” as she puts it. “Some people become really good at something and then they identify with it at a young age, and it’s very difficult for them to lose that. There’s pros and cons to both. It’s hard to know who you are and know really well and not be able to do it.” Much of the tension in her film derives from whether Brady will be able to adapt fast enough before the world leaves him behind.
Meanwhile, Charley Thompson, the doe-eyed teenager at the center of Lean on Pete, languishes at the lowest rung of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. After a tough string of events renders him homeless, Charley must scrounge together basic necessities like food and shelter. He’s not trying to conquer his environment — he’s just trying to get by. In spite of this hardship, Charley perseveres, a drive which Haigh attributes to the indomitability of the American dream as a national credo. “While it may have not helped people in the way it should and how it has failed people and how people have fallen through the cracks, the very philosophy of the American Dream is this hopefulness that seems to be inherent in Charley,” Haigh observed. “It felt really fascinating and tragic and beautiful at the same time.”
One glimmer of hope for both boys is their relationship with an equine companion. For Brady and Charley, the horses they love represent freedom, escape, and opportunity in a world that offers them increasingly less of those things. These animals are not tools to forge a bold new future so much as they are relics connecting them to a simpler, more easily intelligible time.
After being sidelined from competing in rodeo events by a severe brain injury, Brady finds connection to nature through horses. Zhao, who spent time with actor Brady Jandreau before writing the loosely fictionalized Brady Blackburn, noted that he related to horses better than he does to humans. People are difficult and complicated, but horses are pure and simple. “I think a horse is interesting — it’s kind of like a dolphin on land,” Zhao said. “It’s not as wild as a lion, but it’s not as domesticated as a dog. It’s still powerful and wild and dangerous, but it also can be your best friend and gentle. It’s one of the few animals that can think and work with us, and there’s a reason why human beings feel so deep towards horses. They are the closest to who we are, but also the closest to what nature is. It’s this thing that reflects both, so it gives us a connection to nature.”
Charley, on the other hand, finds in his horse the support and understanding absent in his home life. “It felt like that was what the horse represented to Charley,” Haigh explained, “his desire to help that horse that has been left abandoned, essentially, speaks to his subconscious desire to be helped as well.” Lean on Pete (that’s the former racehorse’s name) faces similarly hopeless conditions, unable to race due to a bum foot and likely to be shipped off to an almost certain death in Mexico. The horse simultaneously serves as Charley’s stand-in and the means through which he can achieve what he desperately seeks but dares not openly admit.
Though the cinema and much of America has forgotten about these countrymen, lumping people like Brady and Charley into some convenient catch-all term like “flyover country” or “the heartland,” they’re still here and finding new meanings in the lands and relationships. In Lean 0n Pete and The Rider, we can see decades of massive social upheaval through these boys and their horses — globalization and America’s shift toward a service-based economy, the unfinished gender revolution and the shift away from an unquestioned patriarchal paradigm, the decimation of the American social safety net and the widening chasm of inequality, and the urbanization and digitization of the country that has rendered the West a land populated by ghosts.
Perhaps it’s no surprise that in order to find the deep story of the region, we needed the expert eyes of foreign filmmakers like Haigh, who is British, and Zhao, Chinese-born and U.K educated. The tradition of outsiders making some of the most astute observations about the United States is nearly as old as the country itself, and both filmmakers continue in the proud tradition. Their works resist easy elegy and sentimentality while still deploying intelligence and empathy in equal measure.
I asked each filmmaker whether they found their degree of estrangement from the country and region to be helpful in creating the works they did, a question both answered affirmatively. “For me, I know this history intellectually,” said Zhao, “but I’m not American, so I didn’t grow up with that kind of complex feeling about that part of the history. So, to me, looking at these things — maybe it’s easier for me to say, oh this is a person, and let’s just talk about personal things and not worry about the other labels.”
Haigh went so far as to acknowledge he was following in a grand tradition of filmmakers going to other countries and making films about them. “There’s a freedom when you’re not from a country or not from a community to be able to look at it in a slightly different way or find different things with it,” he said. “I thought, there’s Europeans that go to America and make stories that I find really intriguing. That’s fascinating to me, that’s the great thing about filmmaking, you can get different people’s perspectives on stories.”
“I’m certainly fascinated by it,” said Haigh of America. “It’s an interesting place.”