An unsolved mystery, especially one as peculiar as the case of the Lizzie Borden murders, should be like gold dust for filmmakers looking to tap into a ready-made audience. The chance to portray a real story that has peaked our communal curiosity for over a hundred years provides an opportunity to update those old tales for a new, fresher audience, and dare to make judgements through the interpretive lens of a camera. With a wealth of grisly information on the aftermath (Mr. Borden was struck 18 times with an axe; his wife 17), here is the perfect circumstance for an artist to create something devastatingly haunting from a story so deeply embedded in American popular culture. Lizzie promises all of this but never delivers, presenting us instead with a bare-bones carcass of a biopic that is stripped of all individuality, charm, or character.
Rarely have films ever made me cry for two hours straight, but Lean on Pete arrives like a stampede to join that very short list. I saw Lean on Pete last year at London Film Festival and director Andrew Haigh was at the screening for a Q&A. The very first question (or statement rather) was from a woman who did nothing but berate the film for its representation of America. I was seething — did we even watch the same film? Lean on Pete is devastating. It’s a sensitive portrayal of lower-class America with a heartbreaking performance from Charlie Plummer. Andrew Haigh’s films always destroy me, and this one is no different.
Lean on Pete is the horse in question, a racehorse long past its prime and destined to be sold for slaughter. The only thing standing in the way however is 16-year-old Charley (Charlie Plummer) who refuses to let this horse die. Charley is working for Del (Steve Buscemi), also past his prime and exasperated with the world of horses, he passes on his wisdom to naive little Charley while providing odd jobs. Pete’s rider is Bonnie (Chloë Sevigny), a cynical jockey on the verge of giving it up altogether. “There are only so many times you can fall off a horse and get up,” she says. Her reminders that Lean on Pete is just a horse, not a pet, fall on deaf ears — in a world where Charley has no one (his mother abandoned him and his father is largely absent, much preferring to jump from girlfriend to girlfriend) Pete is his one loyal friend.