Amid the Latest Western Genre Resurgence, ‘Lean on Pete’ and ‘The Rider’ Challenge Cowboy Masculinity in the American West
It would take an afternoon, but Lean on Pete and The Rider need to be viewed together, in conversation, two films exploring the reality of the New West in our modern age and the shortcomings of applying the ideology of what was with what now is. The American experience has long been linked to the masculinity of the solitary cowboy, pushing the limits of the frontier. But what happens when there is nowhere left to go? (Spoilers for both films, out now in theaters, follow.)
We’ve been seeing a resurgence of the Western lately; mainstream films, art-house releases, and peak TV are all revisiting the genre. HBO’s Westworld is upending stereotypical narratives, primarily because its two best characters are women wielding their own agency. The second season positions rancher’s daughter Dolores as the murderous Wyatt (a transformation that Evan Rachel Wood is handling deliciously), while onetime madam Maeve (Thandie Newton, imperious and excellent) expands her mental and physical capabilities, rejects the forced servitude of being a park host, and is on a quest to find her daughter to explore the nature of the love they shared.
Hugh Jackman’s final film as Wolverine, last year’s Logan, was a deeply stirring ultraviolent banger from director James Mangold, who previously directed the 3:10 to Yuma remake starring Russell Crowe, Christian Bale and Ben Foster. Both Bale and Foster appeared in the recent Hostiles, which followed an Army captain in 1892 as he transported a Cheyenne war chief (the quietly intimidating Wes Studi) and his family back to their tribal lands in Montana.
And then there’s Taylor Sheridan, whose trio of Sicario, Hell or High Water, and Wind River explore the West as it exists now: the border between the United States and Mexico and the fluidity of violence across that space; the greed of American capitalism and the way it has gobbled lands and people; and the displaced nature of Native American reservations and communities, ignored and disserved for decades by the rest of this country (an ignorance that began with the white-savior events of Hostiles, basically). Sheridan is most interested in the way individuals are forced into margins by uncaring governments, corporations, and bureaucracies, how corruption leads to desperation, how desperation leads to vengeance. You’ll see that captured in his protagonists: Benicio del Toro’s assassin in Sicario (which is getting a seemingly unnecessary sequel, the upcoming Day of the Soldado), out to avenge the deaths of his wife and family by a drug cartel; the bank-robbing brothers played by Foster (Westerns are really his niche) and Best Chris Pine in Hell or High Water, using the money they stole to pay off the bank trying to repossess their dead mother’s land; and Jeremy Renner’s Fish and Wildlife agent in Wind River, investigating the death of a Native American teenage girl on the Wind River Indian Reservation years after the inexplicable death of his own daughter in that same place.
Every one of those men has already experienced his defining moment of loss and gone rogue to deal with it—often for Sheridan, the vigilante way is the only way. And while Sheridan’s films (which I will admit that I enjoy very much) tackle the isolation of the modern West and how organized institutions always fail individuals, they don’t really question the Western formula itself. In Wind River, inside the home of three young Native American men who have descended into drug addiction and drug dealing to deal with the helplessness of their circumstances, is scrawled the spray-painted message “My heroes have always killed cowboys.” But Renner is still the hero, and Renner is still a cowboy.
Which brings us to Lean on Pete and The Rider, two films that also fit into the Western genre but are less about what the New West represents and more about what it actually is. Have some trailers!
These are stories about boys on the cusp of being men, each of whom is attempting to navigate selfhood in situations of poverty and desolation, in places where the cowboy code was once enough but isn’t anymore. Where so many Westerns focus on exploring (and romanticizing) the destructive ways that masculinity manifests, Lean on Pete and The Rider are concerned with what happens when those stereotypical markers—violence, sex, and lawlessness—are not only stripped away but are never the right choice at all. If you reject what it is to be a cowboy but you exist in the shadow of that figure, who are you?
In Lean on Pete, that person is just a teenage boy trying to find a home. That may sound simplistic, but filmmaker Andrew Haigh (of the critically acclaimed films Weekend and 45 Years, and HBO’s Jonathan Groff-starring Looking) imbues his exploration of being young in the American West with deep feeling. Based on the same-named novel by Willy Vlautin, the A24 release Lean on Pete is essentially a character study of 15-year-old Charley (an excellent Charlie Plummer), moved around often by his listless father and seemingly unmoored in the world. The only thing he can rely on are his own two feet, so he runs—around their ramshackle neighborhood, on the sides of highways as 18-wheelers rumble by, and finally to Portland Downs, where he meets trainer Del (Steve Buscemi). Del isn’t kind, but he is fair to the teen, hiring Charley to help with the horses that he cycles throughout the low-level racing circuit before selling them for slaughter.
How Charley treats those animals, especially the aging Quarter Horse Lean on Pete, is how he would want to be treated: with patience, with clear guidance, with devotion, with love. When Charley’s father is present, he’s too busy joking around with his son about the nonexistent girls in his life than asking him what he wants, what he hopes, or if he’s happy. When Del learns that Charley’s mother abandoned him, he assumes the boy did something wrong to drive her away, and when the conversation gets too personal, he just walks away. Each male adult expects a certain kind of toughness from the teen that he’s not ready to give. These are solitary men living solitary lives, traveling from town to town in an effort to find a better thing that may not exist, exemplifying our frontier understanding of the American West.
But that’s not what Charley wants—he wants roots, he wants a home, and he wants a family. When he escapes with Lean on Pete to prevent the horse from being sold and killed, he starts a journey on foot, reinforcing the character detail that the only person Charley can rely on himself. The most he talks in the whole film is during that walk across the wilderness with Lean on Pete: “I’d rather them think of me being OK. I’d rather them never see me again than see me like this,” Charley says of childhood friends, explaining his desire for a solitary existence. But he never rides Lean on Pete, and Charley never calls him his horse. They’re wanderers together; their relationship is one built on trust and partnership; and he’s not that kind of cowboy.
When Del sees Charley becoming attached to Lean on Pete, he warns him of getting too comfortable with horses: “You should do something else before there’s nothing else you can do,” says the man who has grown to resent the very animals that make his living. And in that way, Del is sort of like the nightmare version of Brady, the protagonist of the evocative Sony Pictures Classics film The Rider from writer and director Chloe Zhao. In The Rider, Zhao has put a fictionalized spin on the experiences of rodeo rider Brady Jandreau, who (a little stiffly, but still movingly) plays a version of himself named Brady Blackburn; also in the cast are Brady’s real-life father and sister, also playing those respective Blackburns, and another real-life rodeo rider, Lane Scott, a best friend of Brady’s who was paralyzed after a car accident a few years ago.
The Rider opens with a dream, or maybe a memory—a horse’s eye, the dust billowing from its hooves, the wind ruffling its mane and tail—before Brady wakes up, dozens of staples holding a plate in the side of his head after a horrific rodeo accident, in the trailer he shares with his sister and father. In the Sioux community in the South Dakota Pine Ridge Reservation (where Zhao filmed on location), the rodeo is a way of life, one of the only traditions that’s left. Brady’s decorations for his horse when he rides are family heirlooms; his leather jacket has an Indian National Finals Rodeo patch on the back; his mother’s grave has figurines of a horse and a cowboy boot next to a wind-weathered wooden cross.
Whether Brady can, or should, ride again after his devastating injury is the central question of The Rider, the subject people simultaneously avoid and bring up in equal measure. His father, often absent either gambling, drinking, or screwing around, disapproves of Brady signing himself out of the hospital and refusing to rest, but he also hasn’t paid the rent on their trailer in four months. With Brady’s father slacking on doing the horse training that is the family profession, where will the money come from if not his rodeo riding? His friends, fellow riders and Sioux teenagers, mostly expect him to “cowboy up”; when they visit him for the first time after his injury, they tell him “Put your Wranglers on. Let’s go get fucked up, bud! Last of the Mohics!” and next to a bonfire in the moonlit desert, swap stories of injuries (“By NFL standards, I should be dead”).
At no point is quitting even mentioned as an option: “It’s all the same to a cowboy. Ride through the pain,” his friends say; when Brady takes a repetitive, boring job at the local supermarket, a family friend warns, “Can’t start getting comfortable”; and even Lane, paralyzed in an assisted-living facility, jokes with Brady, “Rub some dirt in it.” The persistent, conventional masculinity espoused by everyone in Brady’s life is what forces him further inward, inspires secrecy, and keeps his focus narrow but all-defining: What kind of man is he going to choose to be? Because Brady is dealing with not only his head injury, but also paralysis in his right hand—the one he uses to grab the rope when he’s on a bucking bronco—and the only creatures whom he doesn’t have to hide that from are his horses Gus and Apollo. Brady has “the touch” with horses, a mixture of soothing confidence and authoritative instruction that makes him an excellent horse trainer, and only when Brady is with them do we understand what would appeal to him about this life: the wide-open fields, the limitless space, the ability to ride away and never come back. It’s all there in how he explains the rodeo identity to Lily, who is afraid that he’ll die: “I believe God gives each of us a purpose. The horse is trying to cross the prairie. For a cowboy, it’s to ride.”
Each film makes sure to present the young men as on their own in the wilderness: Charley and Lean on Pete in the scrubby hills of Oregon, climbing dusty mountains side by side; Brady astride Apollo as they gallop through lands that once were only a fraction of what belonged to Native American tribes like the Sioux. Those images are gorgeous, but this is untenable in the New West: The prairies have already been crossed; horses can’t live forever; and the poverty that defines these lifestyles is suffocating. And both Lean on Pete and The Rider end in deeply personal tragedies that reinforce for Charley and Brady that the selfhood they’re looking for can’t be found in the cowboy narrative, and that the masculinity that defines this type of mythical figure doesn’t define them.
Of course, the Western as we know it isn’t going away: Jessica Chastain stars in another A24 release coming out this year, the Susanna White-directed Woman Walks Ahead, which is an adaptation of the life of Caroline Weldon, a white woman who became close to the Lakota leader Sitting Bull:
And Sheridan has a new series coming to the Paramount Network, Yellowstone, which stars genre favorite Kevin Costner, Wes Bentley, Justified’s Kelly Reilly, Sheridan regular Gil Birmingham, and Girlfriends’ Golden Brooks, among others, in a story about a family that “controls the largest contiguous ranch in the U.S. and must contend with constant attacks by land developers, clashes with an Indian reservation and conflict with America’s first national park.”
But the examination and dismantling of stereotypical cowboy masculinity is what sets Lean on Pete and The Rider apart from projects like Woman Walks Ahead and Yellowstone, and exactly what makes them so insightful and so memorable. View them together if you can, and do it soon.
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