The Rider, the tender second feature from Chinese-American director Chloé Zhao, opens with a dream: an abstract collision of thunder, dirt, and mane, stomping hooves clashing with the defiant snorts of a wild, free animal. Its the vision of a young man named Brady Blackburn, a horse trainer and celebrated bronco rider living on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota. Really, though, it might be better described as a nightmare.
When The Rider begins, Brady, played by real-life rodeo Brady Jandreau, has just escaped from the hospital. Hes still reeling from a recent accident, a hoof to the skull that caused his brain cavity to swell up with blood. Seizures, a coma, and surgery followed. Still recovering, he doesnt really know what to do with himself. Hes got a neat row of staples lining the back of his head and an awkward partial mullet, his scalp half-overgrown, half-shaved raw where the doctors had to cut his head open. Hes got spells of nausea and vomiting, too, and a medicine cabinet full of pills (to say nothing of his dads steady supply of weed) that for all their power cannot quell the seizures hes been having, which make his right hand spontaneously harden to the point that he has to use his left to pry his fingers free of their death grip. Nor can any medicine fix the fear deepening in Bradys heart: that the life hes known to this point—as a man who spends his days staring up over the crest and down between the ears of a powerful, liberated animal, sharing in its mythic freedom—is now over.
Despite its pure beauty, in other words, theres no mistaking The Rider for a simple, crowd-pleasing pick-me-up. The movie is soulful, elegant, filmed as often as not at the magic hour, when the sky is as broad as it is orange-yellow, and every nook of the world seems alight with possibility. It is hardly, on its surface, an outright downer. But its unmistakably a movie about loss. The movie begins as a dream, but it ends as a sobering glimpse of this new reality.
The Rider is set in the present day, when a rodeo rider can relive past glories by watching clips of himself on YouTube, and when the overall image of the American cowboy is fading. Seemingly all thats left for Brady to do after his accident, given his lack of G.E.D. or any work skills beyond horse training, is to work at the local grocery store, where hes frequently confronted by people confused to see a capable bronco rider shelving frozen fish sticks. This is a pointed subject for American movies, so much of which still owe their style, content, and even politics to the myth of the American frontier and the virtuous, deified cowboys sought to protect it. The image has outlasted the reality, it seems. And the perceptive, intelligent Zhao, who filled this movie almost entirely with Jandreaus real-life family and cowboy friends, whittles those myths down to the unflattering contemporary particulars: rent money that gets gambled away, broncos that kick open skulls, and scarred, forgotten cowboys working aisle six.
Zhao, who was born in Beijing and attended high school in London, college at Mount Holyoke, and graduate school at New York University, has a pedigree that couldnt seem further from the world of the American West or the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. You might expect some inadvertent condescension here. But this is Zhaos second film set there, the result of more than two years of immersion in and collaboration with the Pine Ridge community. Zhao met Jandreau on the reservation while making her first film, 2015s Songs My Brothers Taught Me, which is just as much the product of a sensitive collaboration between Zhao and the lives of her non-professional local actors.
Bradys accident is based on a real skull fracture Jandreau suffered while competing in April 2016. The Rider, making art of that fresh wound, was filmed later that year, in September and October, when the incident and its implications were still fresh on his mind. Jandreaus father, Tim, plays his ball-busting but loving father in the movie. His sister, Lilly, who has Aspergers syndrome, plays herself, too; Zhao confidently folds Lillys condition into the movie as if it were as familiar to viewers as it is to her family. Lane Scott—Jandreaus best friend in real life—plays the former rodeo Lane, injured, like Brady, during a fateful last ride. (This is fiction; in real life, Scott was injured in a car accident in 2013.)
Scenes of Brady and his friends sitting around a campfire reminiscing about their injuries like a clan of spit-chewing old men, or of Brady visiting Lane in the hospital to watch and re-watch the greatest hits of their respective rodeo days, feel as contrived as they are spontaneous and naturalistic. Zhao pulls off a remarkable thing, that curious mix of fiction and non- thats become the holy grail of American indie cinema, for which relying on real landscapes and “real” people, rather than professional actors, has by now become an indie affectation—even despite its use in best-case scenarios of movies like Sean BakersThe Florida Project or Zhaos debut feature. The Rider in so many ways embodies every pitfall of whatever we mean by the dismissive phrase “Sundance movie.” (Indeed, Zhaos first movie was born of the Sundance Institute.) Its got emotional beats thatd knock a Richter scale out of whack and a deep focus on the interior lives of minor, everyday people that may as well be the log line of every American indie movie given serious festival or awards attention. Its handheld as all get-out, too, which doesnt help its case, and it employs, at least on the surface, that strain of minimalism lesser directors always seem to dredge up whenever theyve got no ideas of their own.
And yet The Rider rises above the limitations of its kind, largely because the movies also got Jandreau, whose sloping, sensitive face is the image Zhao returns us to more than any other. The only recurring images that come close are those of Bradys horses, which, like him, are shot in profile, just so, always from crisp, attentive angles, and always with the timing just right, so that you mysteriously wind up feeling you understand the animals inner lives—and Bradys, by association. I would almost argue Zhao overuses this technique, if not for the fact that, both times I watched the movie, I was a complete sucker for it. Zhao has fashioned this movie from inside out, treating the broad arcs of this familiar-seeming story less like an endgame than like a framework for Brady to reimagine himself as the hero, if not of the bronco-riding community, as he once was, then of a movie about one.
The Rider is a finely hewn work of fiction, rife with deliberate, if unobtrusive, movie magic, including the occasional interjection of lofty, sentimental music. But never is it better than when those lines between movie and reality blur, as when we see Brady training ornery bucks with the care and focus of someone ignoring the camera in part because his life might be at stake. Or during his exhilarating final rides on the horses he loves, when the movies scope seems to widen, the plains seem to broaden, and Zhao lets her camera simply run alongside him, as free as Brady and his horses seem to be. Moments like these make the pulse quicken and the heart soar—not only because theyre beautiful, but because their beauty feels true. And because of the skill with which the woman behind it all made them so.
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