Andrew Haigh’s Lean on Pete shares DNA with the films of Kelly Reichardt: both filmmakers deromanticize tired western tropes. This is the fifth feature in our Special Issue on Lean on Pete.
Even before its Venice premiere last year, Lean on Pete was dubbed “Andrew Haigh’s Wendy and Lucy”. Both films follow a homeless outsider’s journey across the American west with an animal companion. More importantly, Haigh and Kelly Reichardt, (who directed Wendy and Lucy) are cut from the same cloth, both aesthetically and in their outlook on the world. Their work is patient, subdued, and focuses on the quiet lives of lonely people.
Now that Haigh has contributed to the western genre in which Reichardt so often operates, their similarities are even more evident. Classic westerns of the ‘50s and ‘60s often told the story of ‘great men’: heroes or outlaws whose names are spoken with fear or reverence by the townspeople. Films like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and The Outlaw Josey Wales even mythicised these names further by using them as a title. These were often stories of masculine white male cowboys traversing the sprawling American west on horseback, the fates of lowly villagers and vulnerable women in their hands.
Haigh and Reichardt both set their films against that traditional western landscape and follow the journey of a lone wolf character. But at every turn, Haigh and Reichardt subvert western tropes in an effort to truthfully depict life in this isolated and disenfranchised part of America. Perhaps that’s because Haigh and Reichardt are outsiders to the genre themselves. Neither grew up in the American west: Haigh is British, and Reichardt is from Miami. Both are members of marginalised groups who would have been sidelined or ignored in a Clint Eastwood or John Wayne western (Haigh is gay and Reichardt is a woman). Why indulge the heteronormative, white male gaze when you don’t benefit from it? Their approach to this often-stereotyped genre is quietly radical. It insists that their lives are just as worthy of the big-screen treatment as the sweeping adventures of a muscular, stoic man in a cowboy hat.'Why indulge the heteronormative, white male gaze when you don’t benefit from it?'Click To Tweet
With Lean on Pete, Andrew Haigh chooses to centre a powerless protagonist. Charley (Charlie Plummer) isn’t a saviour; he needs saving. Westerns often follow a man’s journey to rescue a woman in distress, but Charley is looking for his long-lost aunt because he needs her. Yes, this is a white, male figure crossing the American west with a horse, but Charley has none of the advantages of most western heroes. He’s poor, scrawny, and lacks confidence. He has no capacity to assert masculine dominance — not even by riding his stolen racehorse, Lean on Pete, who is too weak to support Charley’s weight. His journey across the desert is not an epic, exciting adventure; it nearly kills him.
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