Dir. Andrew Haigh. US/UK. 2017. 119 mins
A 15 year-old boy and a broken-down racing quarter horse find themselves travelling companions in the fourth feature film from Andrew Haigh, adapted from the novel by Willy Vlautin. This sparse, evocative portrait of lives of quiet desperation juxtaposed against the endless possibility of America’s wide open mid-western vistas is a striking change of approach after the deft intimacy of Weekend and 45 Years. There’s a wistful quality to the storytelling which softens some of the sharper edges of tragedy and hardship in this undeniably affecting picture. It’s a clear demonstration of filmmaking versatility from Haigh, although some might argue that, given his status as one of the more distinctive voices emerging in British cinema, it’s a demonstration which is perhaps unnecessary at this point in his career.
A clear-eyed insight into the precarious hand-to-mouth existence which can topple under one piece of bad luck too many
The indie stalwart cast, acclaimed source material and Haigh’s heat coming from his previous two films should ensure healthy interest both on the festival and the arthouse circuit. And given Charlotte Rampling’s Oscar nomination for 45 Years, the film may even register on the awards season radar. Word of mouth is likely to be positive, although it could be tempered by a few too many scenic longueurs.
Charlie (Charlie Plummer) is a disarmingly sweet central character. Not yet hardened by the betrayals of his early life – his mother walked out on him as a child; his father struggles to put food in the fridge or indeed to make it home at night – Charlie’s life dreams have been downgraded to something as inconsequential as pancakes for breakfast, the chance to stay at one school long enough to play on the football team. On one of his daily runs through the industrial sprawl of Portland’s suburbs, he stumbles upon a racetrack. There he meets unscrupulous horse owner Dell (Steve Buscemi, all hard vowels and harder drinking), who offers Charlie some casual work. In Dell, the boy finds a dysfunctional father figure, but it’s in his horse, a chestnut gelding called Lean On Pete, the Charlie finds a purpose.
The bond between desperate human and animal is just one of the similarities that the film has with Kelly Reichardt’s Wendy And Lucy, another being the clear-eyed insight into the precarious hand-to-mouth existence which can topple under one piece of bad luck too many. For Charlie, this moment comes when his father falls foul of the ex-husband of his new girlfriend. To make matters worse, the horse, Charlie’s only confidant, faces an uncertain fate. On impulse, Charlie takes Dell’s truck and trailer and drives east with Pete, hoping to reconnect with his aunt and the only stability in his hard-scrabble childhood.
Encounters along the way, with people on the periphery of society, are satisfyingly fleshed out. There’s an achingly sad encounter with an overweight girl not much older than Charlie who, in a brief, resigned exchange admits that she has pretty much given up on her life. Magnus Joenck’s cinematography makes striking use of various permutations of the boy and horse silhouetted against the skyline shot. But it’s in the more intimate camerawork that we find the heart of the film: in Charlie’s heartbreaking, hopeful profile; in a shot of him scrutinising his own face in a mirror to see if the horrible things he has had to do to survive have started to show there.
Production company: The Bureau
Producers: Tristan Goligher
Cinematographer: Magnus Joenck
Editor: Jonathan Alberts
Production design: Ryan Warren Smith
Sound: Joakim Sundström
Music: James Edward Barker
Starring: Charlie Plummer, Steve Buscemi, Chloë Sevigny, Travis Fimmel, Steve Zahn