*** ½ (out of 4)
Like several other recent movies (e.g. The Shape of Water, Isle of Dogs), Andrew Haigh’s Lean on Pete centers on the relationship between a human and an animal. This time around, the human in question is Charley (Charlie Plummer) – a lonely teenager who lives with his single, alcoholic father (Travis Fimmel) in Oregon – and the animal is Lean on Pete (Pete for short), a racehorse Charley befriends while working at a racetrack. We learn fairly early on in the film, unfortunately, that Pete isn’t exactly a hot commodity: he’s lost so many races, in fact, that Charley’s boss (Steve Buscemi) talks of having him slaughtered. So one night, Charley impulsively decides to steal his boss’ truck, throw Pete in the back, and embark on a road trip to Wyoming, where he hopes he can meet up with his long-lost aunt.
In making Pete, Haigh has stated that he wanted to give audiences the urge “to reach through the pages of the story and help this fifteen-year old kid [Charley].” Initially, he goes about attaining this objective by drawing parallels between the lives of Charley and Pete. To Charley’s racetrack colleagues, after all, the latter is just an annoying economic burden – one jockey (Chloë Sevigny), in fact, explicitly warns Charley not to think of Pete as a “pet.” In his personal life, moreover, Charley usually gets treated in an equally dismissive manner: his boss and father, we see, care more about their own problems than about his well-being, and they both toss cash at him in the same way you’d throw a bone at a hungry dog. Such narrative details all serve Haigh’s aim to make you feel compassion for Charley; by equating Charley’s situation with that of an aging racehorse, they portray Charley as an unjustly mistreated individual who merits our attention.
As the narrative moves forward, however, its efforts to make us identify with Charley end up getting somewhat hampered by the film’s cinematography. Like Haigh’s previous works (Weekend, 45 Years), Pete is totally devoid of point-of-view shots. Instead of diving into Charley’s subjective worldview, the camera always follows him from a distance, and it retains this perspective even in the film’s most dramatic moments. Such a detached approach wasn’t much of an issue in Weekend or 45 Years: if anything, it actually enhanced those works’ depictions of the hidden, easy-to-miss turmoil of everyday life. But in Pete, a film that seeks to give prominence to a neglected individual, this method instead feels rather uncaring. You get the uncanny impression that Charley is an animal who’s been put under observation; at times, in fact, the camera seems just as indifferent towards him as his boss is towards Pete.
And yet, even as you register the coldness of Pete’s cinematography, it’s likely you’ll still leave the theater feeling paradoxically moved. In part, this is because the movie’s non-cinematographic stylistic features avoid sentimentalizing the narrative’s heartwrenching (yet easily cheapened) material. For instance, Haigh’s loose approach to editing – the film likes to shift without warning between vastly disparate locations and times – rejects the artificial narrative scaffolding provided by classical continuity techniques. And in a sense, the near-total lack of background music gives the narrative’s drama a chance to “speak for itself.”
At the end of the day, however, you really only need two words to explain why Pete works: Charlie Plummer. Back in December, Plummer was one of the few reasons All the Money in the World proved worth a watch. Here, he approaches his role with a quiet, determined thoughtfulness that belies his ingenuous appearance. Throughout the two-hour running time, he demonstrates a remarkable understanding of the corrosive effects of solitude – and when you watch his character make initial, halting attempts to build intimacy at the film’s end, you might even find yourself close to tears. On its own, Haigh’s direction may not actually give you the urge to “reach through the pages of the story” to help Charley out. But we should all be grateful that Haigh found an actor who does.
Lean on Pete (2017)
Starring: Charlie Plummer, Steve Buscemi, Chloë Sevigny, Travis Fimmel
Running Time: 121 minutes
MPAA Rating: R, “for language and brief violence.”
Produced by: Tristan Goligher
Written and Directed by: Andrew Haigh. Based on Willy Vlautin’s 2010 novel of the same name.