What I didn’t know going into this movie was that it was a kind of docu-fiction: real people playing characters with different surnames who live the experiences the actors have lived themselves. It’s an interesting set-up: not, I think, because of grand epistemological implications but because it creates a context for non-actors to give extraordinary performances within a crafted narrative.
The star here, Brady Jandreau, resembles a very young Heath Ledger often enough for it to be unsettling yet he brings enough depth to his role to keep the resonance from obliterating him (as by all rights it should). This is a western, which means it’s a film about being a man in American culture, but the familiar generic iconography is held at bay. The landscapes are beautiful but seldom soar and seldom feel metaphorical. Brady is just a young man in the middle of nowhere with no money and few prospects, who’s had the one thing he loved and was good at, taken from him by bad luck. Now he’s got to figure out what to do.
I found two aspects of his story extremely moving. The first was the two scenes where we see Brady training horses: the first horse had never been ridden before and was terrified; the second had been badly trained and now bucked fought. In both cases, Brady’s attention to their expressions, his patience and his steady hand, look like love. Genuine, full-blown love. The care he shows these animals reveals that he is a good man. This is the ballast for the film.
The second set of moving scenes is of Brady working in the local pharmacy or grocery store. As he explains to an acquaintance, money wasn’t coming in so he took a job. This is what was available. Despite the situations thrown at him by people who see him as he works—for example, when he’s recognized by two boys who have watched him ride and view him as a hero—Brady’s reactions have little to do with pride. He’s working and seems to feel no embarrassment over the kind of work he does. Instead, his exchanges with other people at work, which I’d expected the film to frame as humiliations, serve as reminders of the work he loved which is no longer possible. The emotions at play are sadness and grief rather than shame or anger. The film’s realism is grounded in this choice of emotions.
All of which is to say that this film is beautiful and I enjoyed it a lot.