Lean on Pete

(Haigh, 2018)

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Coming off 2015’s Oscar-nominated 45 Years, director Andrew Haigh returns with an adaptation of Willy Vlautin’s Oregon-based novel of the same name. The film follows Charley, a 15 year-old who finds work with a rancher who owns a number of racehorses. After finding out that his favorite horse (Lean on Pete) is scheduled to be slaughtered, Charley runs away with him, traveling across the American Northwest in search of his Aunt, and ultimately himself. The problem with this movie is that the entire conceit, the journey it promises in its trailer and synopsis, doesn’t begin until almost halfway through the movie. The result is a movie fractured into two, almost completely unrelated storylines.

The first hour is about Charley’s relationship with his father, his growing bond with the horse, and his growing disdain for the rancher (Steve Buscemi) who abuses his horses. He often finds himself alone, but he makes the best of it. Charlie Plummer’s performance is nuanced, subtle, and honestly very moving. The plot however is about as riveting as a horse tranquilizer.

The second half has Charley venturing across gorgeous landscapes, encountering both dangerous and benevolent people, and monologuing to the horse the whole way. All of subtlety from the first half of the movie is shattered as Charley spells out every bit of subtext in his “conversations” with the horse. The plot, however, is edge-of-your-seat drama as you root for Charley just to survive.

Somewhere in here there is a good movie, maybe even a great one, but this version feels like a movie that has been too faithfully adapted from its source material. It’s structure more closely resembles that of a meandering novel than a two-hour film, causing it to feel even longer and more tedious than it actually is. Lean on Pete certainly has it merits (specifically Charlie Plummer’s standout performance and its cinematography), but on the whole it falls rather flat. ★★★

David Merkle