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.
Similarly, Reichardt doesn’t just re-examine the traditional hyper-masculine western hero; she completely re-defines who that hero can be. Reichardt has set all but one of her films in the midwest (her debut, River of Grass, took place in Miami). She set about questioning our expectations of cinematic stories in that setting, often focusing on the place of women within midwest society. Meek’s Cutoff is a period piece about pioneers travelling across Oregon in the 1800s, privileging the perspectives of the often silent and powerless women. Wendy and Lucy is about a homeless woman fending for herself, with nobody but her dog for company. Certain Women tells three lonely women’s stories about searching for connection or resigning themselves to solitude. Reichardt’s women tend to be self-sufficient and are rarely defined by the men around them — and if that isn’t the case, as with Meek’s Cutoff, it’s to prove a well made point about patriarchal dominance and internalised misogyny.
The image conjured up by a classic western is a lonesome cowboy riding his horse off into the sunset. Reichardt and Haigh both subvert this image, disempowering it. Both Charley and Wendy are lone figures traversing the midwest, but they never dominate their animals by riding them. The closest Reichardt’s films come to an act of heroism is not an action-packed rescue mission but a woman selflessly giving up her best friend. Like Charley, Wendy finds solace through caring for her animal companion. Pete is too weak to be ridden, and Lucy is a dog. Both animals demand the kind of care and attention that Wendy and Charley desperately desire for themselves but are powerless to provide to their animal companions. Pete gets hit by a car, and Wendy decides to leave Lucy with an elderly couple who can better take care of her.'The closest Reichardt’s films come to an act of heroism is not an action-packed rescue mission but a woman selflessly giving up her best friend.'Click To Tweet
Reichard and Haigh use cinematography to subvert the western’s insistence on the power of the west itself. Classic westerns were often about conquering the land; they were shot in cinemascope aspect ratio to ensure the terrain of the west looms large in the frame. To take just one example, The Magnificent Seven is filled with romantic wides of the band of rebels travelling across the plains, dwarfed by their majestic surroundings. But Lean on Pete uses the squarer 1.85:1 aspect ratio, and Reichardt’s films operate between 4:3 and 1.85:1. Haigh’s and Reichardt’s protagonists don’t waste time marvelling at the landscape. There’s enough to concern them in the foreground of their lives for them to bother with its backdrop. The landscape is merely their environment, not a sight to behold, so it’s shot to reflect the characters’ state of mind rather than to let us marvel at its beauty. The only time Charley is reduced to a small figure in a vast landscape, it’s at his lowest, loneliest point, which communicates how Charley feels — small and powerless.
While traditional western leads tend to be dominant, stoic, and powerful men, Haigh’s and Reichardt’s marginalised characters are compelling because they don’t conform to that archetype. Unburdened by white male narcissism, they are more emotional and sensitive. Charley’s youth makes him vulnerable, but his steadfast, almost innocent belief that a loving home is out there gives him the titanic resilience required to keep moving when it looks like all hope is lost. Wendy has nothing, but her compassion for Lucy keeps her striving to find a home for the two of them. What would be weaknesses in a cowboy are virtues to Reichardt, Haigh — and their audiences.
Reichardt’s films in particular make seemingly powerless characters compelling by underlining their strengths. In Reichardt’s Certain Women, The Rancher (Lily Gladstone) is the youngest of the three lead women and the most evidently an outsider, as a queer Native American woman who lives on an isolated ranch away from town. She is unbearably lonely but not yet jaded by the world, so she has an immense capacity for love and a yearning for connection. In Meek’s Cutoff, the Indigenous man captured by a group of settlers might seem the most vulnerable, but ultimately, being an outsider to their group allows him to outsmart the settlers and take agency over their fates. He tells them that he’ll lead them to water, but it’s up to him whether he fulfills that promise or leads them to their deaths, instead.
Most of all, Reichardt and Haigh resist the western’s narrative simplicity: the idea that these characters can triumph, and their stories can end. There are no easily defeatable villains for Reichardt’s and Haigh’s outsiders to combat, so there’s little of the catharsis that you might find in the action-packed finale of a classic western centred on conquest. The forces holding these outsiders are either so huge and systemic (sexism, racism, homophobia, poverty) that they can never be completely eradicated, or internal demons that stop characters from finding peace in themselves. Meek’s Cutoff and Wendy and Lucy end on notes of ambiguity, as we’re left to wonder whether these characters will overcome what holds them back. Charley’s and The Rancher’s stories end in a new beginning. Their triumph is that they’re able to carve out a little more space for themselves to live stable lives. Charley finally gets to stay in one place and start being a normal teenager. We leave him when he finds a safe home where he can start building his identity and make memories with his aunt.'Reichardt and Haigh resist the western’s narrative simplicity: the idea that these characters can triumph, and their stories can end.'Click To Tweet
The Rancher’s long journey to meet her object of desire ends in rejection, leaving her heartbroken. It’s not a grand romantic finale, or even a particularly optimistic ending: she’s given a reality check that her dreams of love and a more exciting life might not come true. But this realisation allows the Rancher to return to her lonely, comfortable life on the ranch with a greater understanding of her place in the world. It may not be epic or life-affirming, but it’s the truth.
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Back in 2016, we talked to Kelly Reichardt about Certain Women. 2018 has been a great year for unconventional westerns. The Australian Sweet Country tells a Post-WWI story from the Indigenous perspective; we talked to Indigenous cinematographer-director Warwick Thornton about the film. Lucretia Martel’s Zama is about a white man, but one who is forever waiting for his adventure to begin. Chloe Zhao’s The Rider centres an Indigenous protagonist who has suffered a severe head injury that makes it no longer possible for him to continue his rodeo career — let alone ride horses at all.