For a lot of my friends, a dog’s death in a movie is far sadder than a human protagonist dying. To put this in some perspective, this is what I think the taxonomy of movie deaths looks like, going from Not Sad At All to Traumatically Sad:
- Bad guy’s henchman
- Sexy girl in a horror movie
- Girl in a James Bond movie that you think is going to be the main love interest but then the baddies kill her and Bond ends up with a more modest and boring girl
- Countries that aren’t the United States in disaster movies
- A superhero’s loved one that dies as part of his origin story
- Comic relief character in a horror movie
- Nice girl in a horror movie
- Cute robots/aliens
- Old person
Having seen three movies this year that are centred around awful things happening to horses, I wonder where they rank in terms of viewer empathy. Dogs are still the undeniable champs of animal weepies – an easy way to approach mortality in family movies where a human death would be too narratively consequential. There would be many more impressionable young viewers with dogs than horses, but the animal still has its own tragic appeal.
Horses are less humanoid in appearance than say E.T. or Wall-E, which disqualifies them from the humanising effects of the uncanny valley. But they are consistently employed as shorthand for fidelity just as much as adventure, a cowboy or knight’s sole companion on their quests of self-discovery. In The Never-Ending Story, Atreyu’s faithful horse Artax has to die in order for the film’s fatalistic coming-of-age to carry any weight. In fact, Artax basically agrees to sacrifice himself for the sake of the narrative, sinking into the Swamp of Sadness as if in completion of some contract.
Cinema has a bizarrely storied and upsetting history with dead horses. They’re iconic onscreen in The Godfather and Au Hasard Balthazar (not technically a horse – please let me live), but Hollywood in particular also has a long tradition of animal cruelty behind the camera. In his memoirs, stuntman Vic Armstrong recalls the carnage on the sets of mid-century biblical epics and westerns, where “horses were made to fall using crude apparatus like wires. It’s just horrendous watching those movies today…in Errol Flynn’s Charge Of The Light Brigade, you can actually see the horses’ necks breaking.”1
Regulations have tightened up since the days of studio omnipotence, but I feel like we’re still led to expect horses in film to meet depressing ends. To tumble into a CGI ravine in fantasy movies. To be put out of their misery with a bullet by the gimlet-eyed hero to show that he has a moral code, but is still man enough to not cry. Horses are at once an emotional surface ripe for projection, and entirely expendable – all the naïve affection of a pet combined with the reliability of furniture. We’re sad when they die, sure, but we still consider them to be somewhat made for us, for our convenience and entertainment. Watch any coverage of the Melbourne Cup in any given year to see evidence of this dynamic at play in the real world. But if you’re after something more complicated, consider the unintentional triple feature of great Sad Horse Movies that have emerged from the American independent scene in the past year.2
It’s not much of a spoiler to say that the equine characters in this year’s Thoroughbreds, The Rider, and Lean On Pete endure at least some degree of torment, if not necessarily death. Of the three, Cory Finley’s directorial debut Thoroughbreds cuts to the chase the quickest – in its opening minutes teen misanthrope Amanda (Olivia Cooke) steels herself to euthanize her horse Honeymooner. We learn the character’s motive for this later, but until late into the movie we’re left to speculate on the cruelty of the act – what kind of a sick fuck would remorselessly kill an animal? And a horse, at that, an animal which here acts as an arbiter of the main character’s noble, aristocratic upbringing. Amanda and her frenemy Lily (Anya Taylor-Young) are both young, white, and pretty, in a vacant, Daisy Buchanan way. They’re overgrown crazy horse girls, taught how to do everything right except empathise, and each forces the others’ bristling sociopathy to the surface.
There’s an undeniable animal element to horse-riding that goes beyond sport or status symbol, even though upper-class trappings might obscure it. Ultimately, horse-riding is forcing another mammal to act as an extension of one’s own body. The absurdity of this relationship power-dynamic is never absent in Thoroughbreds. Finley ends the black comedy with Amanda narrating one of her dreams, in which humanity falls and horses inherit the earth; “no owners, and no memory of owners, and no way of knowing how expensive they are, just mating joyfully and galloping through the ruins.”
Horses are the opposite of a status symbol in Lean On Pete and The Rider – the protagonists of both films are pragmatic young men, working in racing and rodeo circles because everything else is so slow and colourless. Lean On Pete follows the classic Atreyu/Artax model, with protagonist Charley (Charlie Plummer) adopting the eponymous aging racehorse as a kind of sentient, 1000-pound security blanket. Charley and Pete are cut from the same threadbare cloth – both full of potential but neglected by the inattentive world around them, and director Andrew Haigh takes a little too long in untethering them from their equilibrium and setting them off on a cross-country odyssey.
Lean On Pete’s villain is Famine, rather than War or Death – Charley and Pete’s journey is characterised by a constant hunger and lack of resources. Haigh’s thirsty, yellowed landscapes are begging to be used in a car commercial, wild horses breaking free for the horizon, but Pete is just an obstacle. If the film were any less humanist, it might seem like a direct comment on the romantic ideal of a teen runaway – a movie where the plucky animal companion slowly becomes just another anchor that drags its wide-eyed hero into desolation.
The Rider is my favourite in this mini-trend of movies that are fixated on horses as a doomed expression of their rider’s desires. Chloe Zhao’s second feature gallops along the line between documentary and storytelling, in casting the locals of the South Dakota badlands as themselves. In a Heath Ledger-esque “performance”, Brady Jandreau plays Brady Blackburn, a talented bucking bronco rider who’s been medically advised to stop competing in local rodeos after a near-fatal accident. Each narrative scene in the film works to get Brady away from the rodeo – every human character implores him to not be a hero, and Zhao adopts the pacing of a thriller to convey the side effects of Brady’s brain damage from the accident. But all this rationing is undone in the long shots of Jandreau, a working horse trainer, doing what he does on a daily basis for the camera.
We watch in real time, over two or three minutes, as Jandreau calms down a skittish foal with only his voice and body language, clicking his tongue and murmuring to the animal until its frenzied eyes turn flat. Zhao’s loosely scripted narrative about dying for what you love is solid and keenly felt, but it’s clear that these barely-edited horse-and-boy scenes are the reason for the movie’s existence.
More so than in the glib, wickedly scripted Thoroughbreds, we see the rider’s desperate, symbiotic love for their steed. More so than in Lean On Pete’s big-hearted look at teen displacement and homelessness, we approach an understanding of how humans and animals might hurt each other, even fatally – not despite their intimate bond, but because of it.
I used to know a few crazy horse girls. Girls who never cut their hair, owned interminable quantities of officially licensed Saddle Club merch, were certain they would grow up to either be veterinarians or Taylor Swift. Most kids love animals, stuffed or real, but for some reason only horse girls are labelled crazy.
I myself skipped the crazy horse girl stage. My main embarrassing phase was in smugly rejecting the concept of teenage fandom at all – when I was 14, I listened solely to classic rock to convince myself that I was more mature or special than any of my friends who wagged school to be on ticketmaster.com the second One Direction tickets got released. I doggedly believed that listening to The Doors and burning $3 sticks of incense from Ishka was a form of rebellion, and used to find meaning in Jim Morrison’s bloated poetry. Morrison claims he wrote the sophomoric spoken-word piece “Horse Latitudes” at 12 years old, which is probably why only a 14-year-old could take it seriously.
‘Horse Latitudes’ is a maritime term that refers to a prolonged period of calm waters in the middle of a long journey at sea. The same Spanish ships that colonized the Americas would find themselves stuck in eerily flat seas, still months from their destination. Starting to panic about their dwindling rations, the crews had no choice but to throw their horses overboard. That’s got to rank pretty high on the taxonomy if you ask me.