Those horses can't outrun Little Blackie! They're loaded down with fat men and iron! - Mattie
Yes, very well-crafted, finely minor tuned, restrained but old-school thrills. Excellent performances from young ones. The Dude routed through the Duke through whiskey back to a more murderous Dude. A meditation on revenge, coming-of-age, pluckiness, and the American Gothic.
All well and good and true.
And all leaving out the heart of the thing, which is a less restrained, prim and lusty as hell, near psychotic libidinal organization routed through and based on a shape-shifter's logic: Men into Beasts and Meat, Beasts ridden raw into Dead Meat and slithering out from Dead Men to poison the young woman who has left behind the company of men and women, boys and girls, exchange and trade and lawyers and swaps, for the grimier bestiary where The Beef wears leather, The Bad has the legs of a satyr, and a One-Eyed Rooster becomes the horse he has killed.
In a way, beyond its cleaving-close to Western heirs, its closer siblings are the weirder fair of "young woman discovering sexuality amongst senseless occurrences and things that keep changing species", a small subgenre consisting primarily of Neil Jordan's In the Company of Wolves, Jaromil Jireš' Valerie and Her Week of Wonders, and a good half of all fairy tales.
In this instance, we might start with our most literal beserker, the syllable-gargling Bear Man, a dentist and hakwer of the dead (minus their teeth) and, in an initial sight gag, a bear who rides a horse (Ed Corbin on the role: "I got off of him [the horse] as much as I could because I felt badly for him. But mainly the horse kept looking back. You could see in his eyes that he was thinking, 'There's a bear on my back.'") He who needs no place to stay because he's got his bear skin, at once a Bear House and Bear Man.
The bad guy who does not speak but runs through a series of animal impressions, moving from the initially logical taunting of Mattie/Rooster by acting like a rooster to his incapacity to not respond to each situation with a set of bleats, moos, and grunts.
Rooster himself, who spends the majority of the film having a hard time being human and, in what might otherwise be a heart-warming touch, only becomes a "good person" by basically becoming horse.
LaBoeuf, the fancy civilized man, is degraded up or upgraded to "La-Beef," halfway between fop and hunk. The moment when Mattie - who, the film endlessly reminds us, is 14 and hence is supposed to not One Who Fucks in these kind of movies - first sees him on the porch is one of the more potently erotic moments I've seen in a while, from the very understated gesture of him putting his boots up on the railing, his face hidden from view, just a set of objects propped up for inspection. The fact that he took the empty room where she belonged compounds it: The Beef has been lodged, so to speak, in your bed.
She spends the night instead with the wheezing, sheet-stealing old woman, and wakes to find LaBoeuf in her room now, watching her sleep. After being out-talked by her, as are all men, women, animals, and stones in the film, anticipating his later biting of his tongue and thereby producing an actual, rather than figurative, speech impediment, he makes the loose-threat/come-on/deflation that he was thinking about stealing a kiss from her, in spite of her age, but given that she "withholds her sugar," he may need to spank her instead. She responds that "both would have been equally unpleasant," which, given the rest of the film, is to say: perhaps not very unpleasant whatsoever. His spanking fetish continues, and with it the sharp discomfort of the film at the prospect of their potential fucking, when he throws her to the ground and smacks her ass before switching to a cane. That these men don't understand Mattie, to be sure. That the slack jawed gape of Rooster and the manic ass fixation of The Beef is a reasonable and yearning extension of those who are men but are not so human, to be equally sure.
Bodies are full of snakes: the bodies of these bears and roosters and cows and girls, they are themselves made of other bodies. It just takes the whole being dying to reveal themselves as such, a papery frayed shirt opening over a eaten away chest to coils of what should be intestines but which unfurl, rattle, and bite you.
And which motivate the final churning climax of film's hungry looking and touching, as Mattie is bitten by a rattler, Rooster cuts a wound on top of the puncture and sucks the poison out, before taking her on horseback through the night to find a doctor, galloping endless. Coupled with a near precious aestheticism (the snow falls slow, bodies are dark and flat, the sky is massive and navy, heads loll in poison fever, the horse's sweat swine), it is a sequence of pure exertion and exhaustion of the heart, as we watch and listen a horse, carrying a man poisoning himself to death and a girl poisoning herself to death with snakes, be ridden to death across the empty plains.
The horse itself was already a transference: in conversation with the young black stableboy who is the one who knows horses, she names the horse "Little Blackie", as she swaps out a human for a horse in anticipation of her overall abandonment of the younger set for the older men, an imbalance that persists to her narration at the end, where she is alone and "old enough," but Rooster was already too old enough, leaving her with a corpse to bury and prevent from becoming snake.
The horse, that bearer of her withdrawal, collapses in the night. Rooster shoots it. And in the ultimate transformation in a film riven, impelled, obsessed, and confused by them, he picks her up and begins to heave himself toward their destination, swapping himself out for horse, a man who is a rooster who is a horse, the blood straining.
He collapses with final steps in sight of the cabin where the doctor lives and draws his pistol. And yes, he fires a shot in the air to call their attention, with a weary smile and comment about getting old.
But how can we not imagine how the film deserved to end, with Rooster drawing the pistol as he drew it on Little Blackie, because they shoot horse, they do, and putting it to his own temple and blowing his brains out the other side of his skull, putting himself down to become not man, rooster, horse, dog, bear, not even a tangle of snakes, but meat to freeze in the night.
And Mattie picking herself up, the next in the chain, picking herself up like a corpse, to break herself like a horse, to continue that heaving drive to a fire that burns somewhere that is not here.