Both as a novelist and lyricist, Willy Vlautin writes best about horses, the desert, and poor people struggling to survive on the edges of modern society.
In his 2010 novel “Lean on Pete,” Vlautin is able to dabble in all three themes — a lucrative trifecta for fans of the Portland-based creative.
This month, a movie based on the novel opened across the country to solid reviews. Directed by Andrew Haigh, it was filmed partly in the southeastern Oregon towns of Burns and Hines. It stars Charlie Plummer in a deeply affecting performance, alongside admirable supporting efforts from Steve Buscemi and Chloë Sevigny.
The movie’s plot follows Charley, a teenage boy who endures a difficult home life with a loving but limited father. Charley falls into a summer job at a Portland horse track where he finds responsibility, friendship and plenty of new problems. The quarterhorse “Lean on Pete” isn’t that way, however, and when the manure hits the proverbial fan, both boy and horse head off on an eastward adventure that becomes a battle for survival.
It’s a hard, sparse, beautiful film — something that lovers of the Eastern Oregon landscape and culture will find plenty in common with.
There are plenty of scenes of Charley and Pete wandering through endless southeast Oregon sagebrush, but not triumphantly and confidently like John Wayne or Clint Eastwood. Plummer is hunched, parched and on foot, and “Pete” trails halfheartedly behind. Charley says the “horse ain’t for riding,” a decidedly non-cowboy frame of mind and turn of phrase.
But far from being an anti-Western, “Lean on Pete” updates the genre with the fears that stoke today’s American imagination. The enemy of the modern American misfit is no longer Indians or grizzly bears — it’s poverty, violence and drugs. No longer are our cowboys flattening out their bedroll for a clear night under the stars, those without a roof overhead are instead crawling into sleeping bags under highway overpasses or vacant lots.
Vlautin has spent his career rethinking and rebuilding literature of the American West, stripping away the mythical grit to remind us of the look and smell of real dirt. It’s not pretty, and parts of “Lean on Pete” are ugly enough to make you look away. It’s only out of a deep desire for something to break right for Charley that the audience can remain engaged.
It is Plummer’s acting that makes the character and film so compelling. If his career continues to catapult toward stardom, his turn in “Lean on Pete” will be remembered as one of the vehicles that sent him to the stratosphere. It’s no small feat to come across so vulnerable yet so brave, so young yet so mature.
The film does have its limitations. A novel is a better medium to fleshing out the character of Pete, allowing the relationship between boy and horse to blossom and develop. That doesn’t quite connect on screen, and Buscemi and Sevigny come and go too quickly to make the necessary impact to push the plot into motion.
But Vlautin’s love and respect for the high desert comes shining through, something many Eastern Oregonians already know well. Vlautin’s band “Richmond Fontaine” has been a staple of the last few Pendleton Round-Up after-parties, and he often stops in town when driving between Portland and the rural, empty places where he likes to escape. There’s more than a little Charley in him.
The film premiered in Harney County on May 11, though as of now it is not scheduled to appear at cinemas in Wildhorse, Hermiston, Walla Walla or Tri-Cities. It is still being shown in Portland and other major American markets, as well as abroad.