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The Year of the Horse

The world would be a better place if it was more full of horses. In movie theaters in 2018, we got just a tad closer to that utopia.

A24/Ringer illustration

When I was a kid I got thrown from a horse named Popeye. It was my grandfather’s. He was gray, I think, or maybe white. Popeye wasn’t a fan of mine. He bucked and flung me and I landed on my back in the grass, confused. But I throw no stones. Horses should be able to do whatever they want. They are cool and good-looking and better than human beings.

I love to look at them. Their stunning manes, their shiny coats. I especially like it when they’re big—have you ever seen a big horse? They’re wonderful. Sometimes they’re both big and fast. I especially love those horses. Other times they’re small and slow. I especially love those horses as well. It’s very funny when they’re fat, though based on my research (read: several Googles of different combinations of horse and fat/obese/overweight/lazy), that seems to be a rarity. This is one of the first pictures you see after Google Image searching the words “beautiful horse.”

[Extremely Robert Goulet voice] She’s got a shape to her!

Horses are so great that we’ve invented countless words for them, the way Inuit people have hundreds of words for “snow”: horsey, pony, stallion, bronco, colt, filly, mare, foal, gelding, mustang, nag, plug, and, best of all, the true crown jewel of the horse name set, steed. This word is deeply fun to say out loud. You can really flex your cheeks with it. Steed. Steed.

If horses were people they’d probably be very cool to hang out with. Beyond a shadow of a doubt they’d be great to bring to parties. Very endearing, charming types, capable of making everyone around them feel funny and comfortable, happy and joyful. Raconteurs, horses are. Generous laughers. Smooth conversationalists who’ve traveled a lot and are kind but also well aware when someone sucks.

When nighttime comes and the horses are no longer out in the world, but rather asleep and dreaming, I am sad. What good is a horse if it’s hidden? Live out loud, horses. Be ever present. Why aren’t there more just roaming the streets? People’s moods would improve exponentially if the federal government would start to let horses just kind of be anywhere. Who could feel down while looking at a horse? The crime rate would plummet. People would be happier. Everybody would just be outside all the time staring at horses and saying things like, “Look how good this one looks.”

“I know,” a neighbor would say. “I saw. It’s lovely. What about this one over here? That’s another hot horse.”

“It is,” the first neighbor would reply. “Quite hot. Super good-looking as well.”

“Why don’t we hang out more?”

“I don’t know. We just don’t.”

“Seems like we have a lot in common. We both like hot horses, and I frequently see you in athletic shorts. I wear athletic shorts all the time, so there’s another thing.”

“We should hang out tonight. We can watch Far and Away. There’s a ton of horses in that.”

“I love Far and Away.”

“Of course you do. Anyone who hates Far and Away is a loser and you are clearly a champion. You were in Gosford Park for chrissakes.”

“Thank you. That’s really nice of you to say.”

“I’m a very nice person.”

“You are. And calming, weirdly. I loved your performance as the title character in the film Mud.”

“I appreciate that, man. I loved you in Children of Men, too. Not too like no. 2. I know there wasn’t a sequel. I meant, like, too as in also. Maybe I should have just said I also liked you in Children of Men. That would’ve been better. More coherent.”

“I understood what you were saying.”

In this particular exercise, Matthew McConaughey and Clive Owen live next to each other.

I guess the reason I’m saying all this is because I love seeing horses in movies. All movies should have horses in them. I have no idea why studios haven’t realized this. Michael Clayton had horses in it, and that movie’s amazing. Anchorman had horses in it, and that movie’s hilarious. Open Range had horses in it, and that movie’s perfect. Did you see Secretariat? I saw it with my dad. It was totally fine. The horse was remarkable, though. Powerful. Regal.

Personally, I’m a Palomino man. I also like a nice, sturdy Andalusian—air horns for the crimped mane. The Friesian is dope. Ditto for the Gypsy horse. Feathering on the lower legs like Aspen-era Lloyd Christmas, post Lambo. Again: Horses are beautiful. Shouts to Flicka, a movie I saw only a few minutes of this one time it was on CMT. Tim McGraw was in it. As we all know, there was a Flicka 2. It starred Patrick Warburton and Clint Black, because why wouldn’t it? Do you have any better ideas for who’d star in that movie? Who did you say? Powers Boothe? That’s actually a pretty good call. That would be better. Warburton, Boothe: Flicka 2. That’s a high-quality horse on the poster there. Did you know Tim McGraw’s real name is Samuel? I literally just learned that. The world is full of dark and regrettable things.

Another interesting thing about me is I’m one of the four people on this planet who liked the movie War Horse. At the end, when the sky looks like a blood orange and the boy pulls out the scarf or whatever it is and gives it back to his dad? That was incredible. Fountains of tears. Big drops of them falling down around me. It really is a wonderful movie to roll around in your mind. The kid went blind or something? That might be wrong. The horse was wrapped in barbed wire for a time—that I remember. I didn’t like that part.

Check out this guy, just a random horse:

Fantastic.

This one time in college me and a bunch of dudes got together and went to see Appaloosa. I know that is a disgusting sentence and I’m sorry. We all got in a fight on the way home because some of my friends were stupid and thought the movie was good. I tried to watch it again the other day and turned it off about 20 minutes in, right after Renée Zellweger plays the piano for the first time. All I remembered from my initial viewing was Ed Harris walking around some half-done house for like, three-fourths of the movie, playing peekaboo with Zellweger between slats of wood. That might also be wrong. There’s a fine line between contemplative and boring, and Appaloosa lands in the latter. Imagine how bad it would’ve been if it didn’t have any horses in it.

There’s a YouTube video titled “Top 10 Most Beautiful Horses In The World.” It’s brilliant. Please watch it. Feel better.

I guess the reason I said all those things about horses, and then all those things about horses in old movies, is because 2018 quietly turned into the year of the horse at the movies. That’s what we call a setup.

At the beginning of Chloé Zhao’s The Rider, there are brief glimpses of a horse in the darkness. Thin sprays of light land on its head, eyes, mane, hooves. We see it run, splashes of dirt floating up from the horseshoes. Then the cowboy wakes up. The horse had been in his dreams. On his head is a bandage the size of a couple of king-sized Snickers, the dressings held there by staples. He goes to the bathroom, removes the staples with a knife, covers his head in plastic wrap, and takes a shower. Then he redresses the wound, makes coffee, smokes a joint, and goes outside to talk to a horse named Gus.

There’s a reverence in the way Zhao and her cinematographer, Joshua James Richards, film horses. In this film and their last, Songs My Brothers Taught Me, they seem in awe of the animals. They frame them so the sun dapples their fur and catches the edges of their hide, to make them glow. There’s an extended scene in The Rider where Brady Jandreau, playing a fictionalized version of himself, breaks a horse. He tames him right there on the screen. The animal and the man dance. The horse looks chestnut. I like it when horses jump over fences.

Lean on Pete came out in April and is one of the saddest movies I’ve ever seen. (Andrew Haigh directed the film. He also directed 45 Years. Have you seen that movie? It’s sad, too. Haigh’s a little sad guy.) The horse in it dies; gets spooked by some traffic and takes off. Over and over the boy screams the animal’s name. Pete. Pete. There are headlights. More screams. Pete. Pete. Then the horse gets hit by a Taurus. It’s awful. Why did they need to kill a horse? Kill a cow, man. You can eat those. I should have probably included a spoiler alert before letting y’all know the horse died. That’s on me. I’ll take that one. I apologize. I’m just still upset. Because I like horses. In Lean on Pete, when Charley first shows up in the lobby at Portland Downs, he walks along a wall filled with pictures and paintings of horses. That made me very jealous—I would love to walk along a wall like that. Then at one point, the horse and the kid stand together in a river and stare at the last of the sun. It’s sublime. Haigh knows his way around a landscape shot. Throughout the movie the sky’s painted up in different pastels, swipes of matted orange or yellow or red or purple, long scenes set in a wide shot of just the horse and the boy, alone, walking through the country, hurting. It’s a film about loneliness and trying to find a family. The kid is supposedly some great distance runner but every time he runs in the movie it seems like it’s the first time that he’s ever run before. It’s a good movie, mostly thanks to the horses.

Thoroughbreds, too, begins in blackness. There’s an animal’s breath and the jingle of a bridle, and then the opening shot: a girl standing face to face with a horse. They’re in the stables and they stare at each other for a bit. Then the girl takes some steps toward the animal, reaches out, and touches its nose. More blackness. Then a shot of a backpack, and the girl’s hand reaching in. She pulls out a knife. Then the scene is over.

There’s horse imagery throughout the movie, statuettes and pictures all dotting the houses. The girl sits on her childhood bed at one point and on her bedroom wall are pictures of horses and blue ribbons and red ribbons and yellow ribbons all hanging there. At the end of the film, she’s sitting on a different bed. She stares at a picture on the wall of her and her best friend, both of them children, and atop horses. There’s voice-over of the girl reading a letter she wrote to her friend. In it, she describes two recurring dreams she’s been having. In the first, she has a horse’s head instead of her face. In the second, she says this:

And then there’s this other recurring dream that doesn’t involve you at all. And it goes like this: I am Honeymooner. And I’m dying. And I rise out of my body. And I’m staring down at our whole suburb. Time is speeding up. And I see generations of people coming and going and building bigger houses. And then eventually, the people start spending more and more of their time staring at their smartphones. And soon enough they’re forgetting to clean their houses, or mow their lawns, or eat. And eventually all the houses rot and collapse and the people disappear, vanishing completely into the internet. And then, and this is the really beautiful part, the horses take over. And the whole suburb is just beautiful thoroughbred stallions with no owners and no memory of owners and no way of knowing how expensive they are. Just neighing and galloping through the ruins.

Boots Riley’s Sorry to Bother You is also heavy on the horses. I won’t say much more in case you haven’t seen it, but just, look, that movie was bonkers. Danny Glover wears two different bolo ties during the film. One’s a golden horse. The other’s a white horseshoe. Armie Hammer’s character wrote a book called I’m on Top. The cover’s a shot of him on horseback, the animal reared up on its hind legs. When Lakeith Stanfield does a spiraled line of what he believes to be coke in Hammer’s office, he does it off a plate with a picture of a horse on it. Above the horse it says “Mr. Bobo.” Paintings of horses cover the walls of Hammer’s office. He’s even got himself a golden horse lamp that looks like it came from a merry-go-round. OK, I guess I’ll say a bit more. This sentence will act as a warning for those of you who wish to see the movie but haven’t gotten around to it yet. So will this one. I will reveal a spoiler now: There are horse people in this movie. They look very sweaty and have eight packs and dicks the size of rolling pins.

The Favourite has several horses in it. So does The Ballad of Buster Scruggs. The Sisters Brothers is full of them. I wish there’d been a horse in Annihilation. A pony in the Shimmer? That thing would’ve been unreal. It’d probably have a shark tail, or human lips, or be able to sing like a bird or something.

Have you ever seen a pack of wild stallions sprint through a lagoon?

Staple that video to the inside of my eyelids. Show it at my funeral. Have Xzibit and the boys over at GAS put televisions in the headrests of my ’87 Wagoneer and play that video on a loop so everyone I give rides to can see beautiful things. We are on this ball and spinning around in a galaxy in which we are but specks, and the world is a hard place to live and it pokes at you and burns you and reminds you, often, that you’re small. With all that negativity hurling itself your way, it’s nice to just sit down and stare at horses for a while. In fact, just look at these two:

Magnificent.

I’m not sure why I like horses so much. Maybe they represent some old idea about the possibility of escape, freedom. Maybe I’m amazed they’ve existed for as long as they have. Maybe it’s some backward kind of awe that, despite them being so gigantic, so strong, and so fast, we’re still capable of domesticating them. Maybe it’s because I’m American and it was ingrained in me from birth to care deeply about transportation. Maybe it’s that, in some strange way, they connect us to the past. Or maybe I’m a poseur and a sucker for all things that call up in me real and imagined pictures of the wild, Wild West.

My other grandfather, the one who didn’t own Popeye, used to lead expeditions into the Rockies. He’d take backpackers and hikers and hunters and fishermen up into the mountains, help them set up camp, then head back down. They rode in on horseback, the animals having made the trip so many times they could do it blind. Sometimes they had to—a blizzard heading his way, my grandfather would have to lead a team of horses back up the mountain to get the people out. Today he tells stories of men scared out of their minds, unable to see their hands in front of their faces. He would explain to them that the horse had the trip memorized. They could either trust the animal and make it out, or they could die. I think about that a lot. What it would be like to be in all that swirling white atop a horse you’ve never ridden before. To your right is the mountain wall. To your left is your death. Stinging face, the snow running into your eyes, it’s you and the animal and the mountain, and the animal and the wind, and the animal and the snow, and you just hope my granddad isn’t lying to you.

I ate too much pizza for dinner the other night and fell asleep on the couch watching Phantom Thread on HBO. I woke up around 2 in the morning. Dances With Wolves was on. A pack of horses approached a river—brown, white, black, gray, blond, their refracted reflections smeared on the surface of the water like melting Rothkos. I was glad to see them. They looked beautiful.

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