If I tried really hard, I could draw thematic parallels between Lean on Pete and You Were Never Really Here, two new movies opening in limited release this weekend and expanding throughout the country in the weeks to come. (If they never reach your neck of the woods, they should eventually end up on Amazon Prime.)
Both movies are about men driven to desperate journeys to save innocents, but they’re also about the underlying trauma that drives both men to make those journeys. Both movies feature vivid lead performances. And both movies are directed by auteurs whose work is always welcome in theaters. (Pete was directed by Andrew Haigh; Here was directed by Lynne Ramsay.)
But the experience of watching both movies couldn’t be more different. Lean on Pete is a lovely, lyrical journey through the western United States, one that lets a teenage boy process his emotions against the vastness of the empty landscape. You Were Never Really Here is a lean and mean vigilante thriller that takes place in New York City.
And, honestly, the settings are the perfect way to describe each movie — the former is vast and expansive; the latter is tight and crowded and a little bit nasty.
So let’s take a look at both, and at their justifiably acclaimed directors. Both are worth seeing, among the best films of the year so far, but one seems likely to be one of the best films I see in all of 2018.
Lean on Pete is about a boy and his horse — and so much more
Charley Thompson (Charlie Plummer), like most teenagers, is an awkward collection of elbows and angles, just starting to figure out how to move in his growing body. He’s also largely on his own. His mother abandoned him when he was a baby, and his father, Ray (Travis Fimmel), isn’t much of a solid foundation to stand upon. The two have moved from city to city as Ray looks for work but, mostly, a good time.
And then Charley meets Del (Steve Buscemi), and everything changes for him. Del works with racehorses, on the extreme underbelly of the sport, bringing fading creatures that were never bound for glory in the first place to little fairs and under-the-radar events, bending and breaking the rules to make a few bucks here and there. In a sport geared toward the rich, Del is a schemer working to hang on to the absolute bottom rung of the ladder.
He also owns a 5-year-old horse named Lean on Pete, who is probably on his way to Mexico, where he will be slaughtered, sooner rather than later.
You can guess from the title of the movie that Charley bonds with Pete, who becomes a kind of lifeline to a troubled kid. But Lean on Pete is also the sort of movie it would be a shame to spoil, even though almost nothing happens in it. Charley and Pete meet a variety of colorful characters, most played by recognizable faces, as they embark upon an unlikely journey across the American West (on foot, no less — this is a movie about going on the run with a horse that features the kid never riding the horse), but the way the movie slowly forces Charley to confront the sadness inside of him that he’s never known how to talk about is exquisite.
Haigh, who both wrote the screenplay (from the novel by Willy Vlautin) and directed, has rapidly become one of my favorite directors over the course of his past three features, 2011’s swooning romance Weekend, 2015’s examination of a long-lasting marriage 45 Years, and now Lean on Pete. Haigh is never afraid to take his time with a sequence, to let the emotion build and build and build, and he uses medium shots masterfully, gaining just as much tension and emotion from what you know is just outside the frame as what’s in it.
It’s unusual to have a movie as emotional as Lean on Pete use close-ups as sparingly as it does, but Haigh uses the big, empty landscapes Charley and Pete travel through to do some of this work for him. Charley is dealing with a lot, and it’s often as if the world itself has created a landscape that reflects his inner self — never-ending and seemingly barren, but filled with a gnarled life that persists against all odds.
And throughout it all, there’s the horse. A refrain in the movie is that horses aren’t pets and Charley best not get attached too heavily to Pete. Yet you’ll know, again, from the title that he fails miserably. And Haigh subtly lets you know why too. Pete isn’t the most beautiful horse, or the most charismatic, or the fastest. But he is there when Charley needs a friend, poking his head over a fence or nuzzling his nose into Charley’s hand for a treat. A horse might not be able to feel love for a teenage boy, but Lean on Pete makes sure you know how deeply a teenage boy can feel love for a horse. It’s one of the best films of the year.
You Were Never Really Here is a grimy trip into New York’s underworld (and also kinda Pizzagate: The Movie)
Scottish director Lynne Ramsay works so rarely — she’s made just four features between her 1999 debut Ratcatcher and You Were Never Really Here — that it feels weird to call one of her films “minor,” but here we are.
You Were Never Really Here feels a bit like a palate cleanser after 2002’s brilliantly bleak Morvern Callar and 2011’s terrifying We Need to Talk about Kevin (a movie that has only gained in resonance since its release). For the first time since Ratcatcher, Ramsay is following a male protagonist, and the movie is a nasty piece of business, set in a world where the rich and powerful can do anything they want without repercussions, up to and including the abuse of children, and the only recourse against them is to bash them in the skull with a hammer.
Because this is Ramsay, the movie largely elides violence to think about the effects of violence, the ways that abuse and horror we suffer as children trickle down through the years and manifest themselves when we become adults. Her protagonist, Joe (Joaquin Phoenix, who continues a remarkable streak of performances), can’t find a way to deal with the abuse visited upon him as a child by his father, except to tenderly take care of his now elderly mother, who was similarly abused. You Were Never Really Here hints at the extent of the horrors Joe suffered, but it never tells you directly about them, which is one of its strengths.
It also turns out to be an operating principle for the movie itself. Perhaps its most bravura sequence is also one that will let you know if you want to watch the film or not. Set in a brothel of child prostitutes to the Rosie & the Originals song “Angel Baby,” it’s filmed entirely via security cameras, which cycle from camera to camera, as though the viewer were a guard sitting at their desk, not particularly caring that Joe is carrying out a one-man battle against every member of security personnel in the place.
The camera will show Joe approach a guard, both of their hands raised to fight each other, then cycle to another view of a young girl sitting in a room, or the lifeless body of someone Joe has already killed. It’s amazing how well Ramsay lays out the geography of the place and Joe’s progress through it via this device — I’m still not sure how she did it — but those looking for the visceral thrill of Joe taking down a bunch of men who very much need to be taken down might be a little disappointed by the clinical detachment of the sequence.
And yet this must be how Joe’s head processes this kind of violence — it’s a job that must be done. He’s at the brothel, after all, because he’s been hired by a politician to save his 13-year-old daughter, who ran away from home for a night and somehow ended up in hell. So he doesn’t think about what he’s doing. He just does it. Getting to see the act of him doing it would be for the audience, not for him, and because the movie is so thoroughly pinned to his point of view, we need to stay there even for these moments.
There’s a lot going on in Never Really Here (which Ramsay also wrote from the novel by Jonathan Ames). It’s the kind of movie I’m glad she made because her interrogation of Joe’s masculinity (he spends a lot of the movie gazing upon his big, burly frame as though he doesn’t quite recognize himself) is the sort of thing endemic to the material that many male directors might have missed in an attempt to make the movie more “exciting.” (It should also go without saying that Ramsay knows how to navigate the tricky terrain of depicting child prostitution without glamorizing it.)
And I haven’t even touched on the movie’s brooding score, by Jonny Greenwood, or its wonderfully overlapping sound design, filled with voices and sound effects jostling for attention in Joe’s head.
But it’s also a movie that can’t quite escape the moment it was released in, when the ostensibly pulpy story that gives the movie its spine (the rich and powerful politicians are running secret rings of child prostitutes) has become the basis of several real-world conspiracy theories that have brought grief to plenty of individuals over the past couple of years.
I’m not downgrading Never Really Here for that — I felt like the girl Joe is tasked with saving is too much of a cipher for the film’s final emotional payoffs to land completely — but it’s jarring to watch in 2018. In far future retrospectives of Ramsay’s (hopefully many) films, god, I hope it plays differently.
You Were Never Really Here and Lean on Pete are in select theaters. They will expand throughout the country in the weeks to come.