Tag Archives: B+

LEAN ON PETE

Producer: Tristan Goligher
Director: Andrew Haigh
Writer: Andrew Haigh
Stars: Charlie Plummer, Steve Buscemi, Chloe Sevigny, Travis Fimmel, Steve Zahn, Justin Rain, Lewis Pullman, Bob Olin, Teyah Hartley, Kurt Conroyd, Alison Elliott, Rachel Perrell Fosket, Jason Rouse and Amy Seimetz
Studio: A24 Films

B+

Andrew Haigh’s film takes its title from the Willy Vlautin book from which it was adapted, but also from the name of an over-the-hill quarter horse that is a character in it. The focus, however, is not on the animal, but on a fifteen-year old boy who—in an emotional sense—comes to lean on the horse during a particularly difficult time of his life. The lad, Charley Thompson, is played by Charlie Plummer, and the young actor is the true linchpin of the film, giving a performance of rare insight and dramatic impact.

Charley has just arrived in Portland with his dad Ray (Travis Fimmel); his mother abandoned them years earlier. Ray obviously has great affection for his son, but he’s hardly a responsible father, more interested in shacking up with women like Lynn (Amy Seimetz), a secretary from work who’s separated from her husband, than in caring for the boy.

One day while out running in hopes of making his new school’s track team Charley comes upon a local racetrack where he meets horse owner Del (Steve Buscemi), whom he asks for a job. Del takes the kid on temporarily, and Charley proves such a hard worker that the job becomes permanent. He develops a special attachment to Lean on Pete, a five-year old whose racing days are coming to a close, though jockey Bonnie (Chloe Sevigny) warns him not to. She’s right, because while Del likes the kid, he’s a practical guy, and decides to sell the animal to a Mexican slaughterhouse.

It’s not the only loss Charley is faced with. Lynn’s husband comes after Ray one night, and his father winds up severely injured and hospitalized. What follows leads the boy to a fateful decision: he takes off with Lean on Pete to a journey to Wyoming, where he thinks his Aunt Margy (Alison Elliott) might live. He remembers her as the only person who really showed him kindness after his mother’s departure; but she and Ray became estranged, and hadn’t spoken in years.

The trip is a hard one, portrayed as a depressing picaresque. Charley is desperately short of money, and at one point is threatened with jail when he tries to eat and run at a roadside diner. On one occasion he take a job with a Mexican painting crew, only to have his earnings stolen by hop-head Silver (Steve Zahn), who befriends the boy at a soup kitchen and offers him a bed in his trailer—which prompts Charley to take uncharacteristically violent action. On another he finds temporary refuge with a couple of slacker war vets at an isolated cabin, where he shares a poignant conversation about people who have no choices in life with a girl who visits with her abusive grandfather. By the time he reaches Wyoming, Charley is alone and desperate.

Haigh, who treated a marriage in crisis with delicacy and compassion in “45 Years,” deals with the tragic circumstances young Charley must confront in a similarly humane, empathetic fashion. It’s possible to question some of the casting choices—certainly Buscemi isn’t the first actor you’d think of to play a crusty old western horse owner, though he manages to carry it off, nor is Zahn a natural choice as a scummy thief (and he doesn’t fully convince). But Fimmel, once a handsome hunk, is thoroughly persuasive as a shaggy, run-down womanizer, and Sevigny, another odd choice, brings a touching quality to the spunky jockey who befriends Charley, becoming almost a surrogate aunt to the boy. Under Haigh’s sure hand the rest of the supporting cast etch compelling small portraits, and the technical contributions—from cinematographer Magnus Jonck, production designer Ryan Warren Smith, costumer Julie Carnahan, and editor Jonathan Alberts—are all outstanding, as is James Edward Barker’s understated score.

But it’s Plummer who’s essential to the film’s success. In a performance remarkable for its range, he captures every nuance of Charley’s emotional journey, from his early uncertainty with Ray and Del to his heartbreak in the last act and his tearful reaction to a chance at a better life at the close. The young actor was good as John Paul Getty III in Ridley Scott’s “All the Money in the World,” but here he is truly extraordinary, and he works with Haigh to create as harrowing and unforgettable a portrait of adolescent turmoil as François Truffaut fashioned in “The 400 Blows.” Those who were impressed by the treatment of children on the edge in “The Florida Project” will be equally moved by what Haigh and Plummer have achieved in “Lean on Pete.”

JOURNEY’S END

Producer: Guy De Beaujeu and Simon Reade
Director: Saul Dibb
Writer: Simon Reade
Stars: Sam Claflin, Paul Bettany, Asa Butterfield, Toby Jones, Tom Sturridge, Stephen Graham, Robert Glenister, Miles Jupp and Robert Wickham
Studio: Good Deed Entertainment

B+

The play by R.C. Sheriff on which Saul Dibb’s film is based was first staged in 1928 (with a young Laurence Olivier in the lead). It was wildly successful, and first adapted for the screen by James Whale and Colin Clive in 1930, shortly before their far more famous collaboration on “Frankenstein.”

As Dibb’s new version demonstrates, though, while it’s set during World War I “Journey’s End” is no mere period piece. Even after nearly a century, the story of men awaiting almost certain death in the trenches on the western front incisively conveys the horrifying human cost of war, however much soldiers’ manners might have changed in the intervening years.

The tale is set over less than a week in March, 1918, near St. Quentin in northern France. We are introduced to the English-manned trench there through the eyes of green, just-out-of-training Second Lieutenant Jimmy Raleigh (Asa Butterfield, radiating wide-eyed naïveté), who has asked to be posted to the dangerous place in order to serve under Captain Denis Stanhope (Sam Claflin), his former head-boy at their private school and prospective brother-in-law.

Unfortunately, Stanhope has been much changed by his experience in the field. Continuously surly and quickly exhausting the company’s supply of whiskey, he’s not at all pleased to see Raleigh, who reminds him of his former life, and keeps the young man at arm’s length. Raleigh instead finds some solace in a kindly reception from Stanhope’s second-in-command, Lieutenant Osborne (Paul Bettany), a mild-mannered teacher. The other officers are of very different temperaments: Trotter (Stephen Graham) is gregarious and apparently carefree, while Hibbert (Tom Sturridge) is a nervous wreck, feigning illness to be sent to the rear. Serving the command’s needs is Mason (Toby Jones), the cook who is often the target of the officers’ barbs.

Hibbert’s desperation is understandable, since intelligence indicates that the long-expected German assault that will come to be known the Spring (or Kaiserschlacht, or Ludendorff) Offensive—a last-ditch attempt to win the war before U.S. forces can be fully engaged–is imminent, and that St. Quentin is where it will begin, with the so-called Michael Offensive. To get more information on the precise time of the attack, the unseen general orders a contingent from the company to cross no man’s land and abduct a German soldier—a mission which Osborne, Raleigh, and ten privates will undertake at considerable cost. It merely confirms that the assault will come shortly, and the company is ordered to hold its ground as long as it can without hope of reinforcement. All the men are, in effect, being condemned to death.

Sheriff’s play had obvious relevance in its day, coming only a decade after the events against which it is set. But at a time when warfare continues across the globe and the inclination to use military force remains strong among those in power, its portrayal of how soldiers can be considered expendable in furthering overarching national goals remains cogent. In essence the point made by “Journey’s End,” both in 1928 and now, is the same one made by another fine World War I film, Stanley Kubrick’s 1957 “Paths of Glory.” Though the soldiers in that instance were French, they were treated in much the same way as the English men depicted here, though Kubrick allowed a note of hopefulness at the end that Dibb—or Sheriff—does not.

It is, in fact, the playwright’s work that remains the strong spine of the film; the screenplay by Simon Reade (who also served as one of the producers) streamlines the dialogue somewhat, but on the whole is extremely faithful, while Dibb and his team of craftsmen—production designer Kristian Milsted, costumer Anushia Nieradzik, cinematographer Laurie Rose, and editor Tania Reddin—have fashioned an atmosphere of claustrophobia and dread even as they keep things moving and manage effective, if small-scaled, action sequences. The unobtrusively mournful score by Hildur Gudnadottir and Natalie Holt adds to the mood of despair.

And the cast is uniformly excellent. Claflin, in the role originated by Olivier, captures Stanhope’s simmering fury well, contrasting him effectively with Butterfield’s anxious, untested Raleigh. Bettany brings a poignantly understated calm to Osborne, and conveys beautifully the combination of fear and resignation he feels when assigned to lead what will likely be a suicide mission. Graham and Jones add a note of stressed normalcy that is welcome, while Sturridge deals as best as one might hope with what is perhaps the most difficult role, of a psychologically damaged man struggling to do what he’s told is his duty in an impossible situation. The lesser roles are all well taken as well.

Like “Paths of Glory,” “Journey’s End” proves that the lessons taught by one of the most destructive wars in human history remain potent today, at least when as well delivered as they are here.