I’m “biast” (con): nothing
(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)
The story of how The Rider came to be is as remarkable as the movie itself. Filmmaker Chloé Zhao had been hanging out with horse trainer and rodeo rider Brady Jandreau and his friends in the Badlands of South Dakota and had already decided to make a film about him when Jandreau, then just 20 years old, was nearly killed in the ring, stomped in the head by a bucking horse. And so The Rider was born, an extraordinary semidocumentary drama about “Brady Blackburn,” a young horse trainer and rodeo rider coping with the aftermath of a severe traumatic brain injury, one that has left him fragile enough that doctors insist he never ride again, definitely not in anything as dangerous as a rodeo, because another knock to his head will mean almost certain death.
Jandreau plays Blackburn; his real father, Tim, plays Blackburn’s father, Wayne; his real sister, Lilly, plays Blackburn’s sister, Lilly. The audacity of Zhao’s choices here is immense, and it has resulted in a payoff that is astonishing. This is a raw, real exploration of pain and recovery, of dignity and pride, of figuring out what defines you when the work you love most and are best at is taken away from you, of creating new ideas of what masculinity means in one of the most conservative and tradition-bound places in America. Zhao achieves all this with a simple elegance that ripples with depth and feeling so profound that it defies description, by us viewers but also by the dual Brady Jandreau/Blackburn, who is struggling with complicated and contradictory emotions: Does a man “cowboy up,” stop complaining and worrying about his own well-being, and go back to risking his life because that’s how you support your family? What if his own happiness is also tied up in that work, even it might kill him? (Isn’t it a kind of death, too, of the soul, not to do what you were born to do?) Are there another options? For all that this is a quiet, contemplative experience, The Rider is full of immense and constant suspense right till the very end of the film: Will Blackburn go back to working with and riding horses even if it might kill him?
Jandreau said on BBC Breakfast just this morning that this film is about 60 percent his real life and 40 percent fictional, and Zhao ladens on harsh truths about life in this part of the world that fiction cannot obscure. The landscape is stunning, but barren of much opportunity that doesn’t revolve around horses; it is an economy of dollar stores and pawn shops, with few jobs for the likes of Blackburn, who doesn’t even have a high-school diploma. It’s not mentioned in the film, but Jandreau is Lakota, of the Lower Brule Sioux tribe, and the movie is set in and was shot in the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. So The Rider also offers some very much needed Native American representation onscreen, including an eye-opening depiction of the poverty and desperation Native Americans are often living with, yet one that is also a modern all-American story.
What Blackburn does have is a captivating talent with horses: Zhao and her cinematographer, Joshua James Richards, give us straightforward, uncut sequences of Jandreau/Blackburn working with animals that others have given up on, and we observe with awe how he communicates with them, and calms them, and creates willing partners of formerly intractable creatures. (Richards also shot God’s Own Country, with which this movie shares a certain rugged spirit.) Blackburn has, too, a hushed acceptance of the dangers of this work; it’s part of the culture here. A man whose horse Blackburn works with has a hook for a hand, which we notice only incidentally; no attention is brought to it. In one extraordinary scene, Blackburn and his rodeo friends compare and reminisce about their many injuries sustained in the ring, from broken bones to concussions. A running thread throughout the film sees Blackburn visiting his friend Lane Scott, another rodeo cowboy playing himself, at the rehab center where he now lives after his own traumatic injury left him partially paralyzed and unable to speak. In reality, Scott was injured in a car accident, not while rodeoing, as is the implication here: this could be Blackburn’s future, we are to understand. But Blackburn confronts it with the same practicality with which he had previously pulled medical staples out of his skull with a bowie knife. (Yes. Yikes.)
The Rider is so beautiful, and so beautifully accomplished, that it’s difficult to believe that this is only Zhao’s second feature; it feels like it must be the work of a more mature and experienced artist. She brings a wise, sharp, and welcome outsider’s eye on America, and on American ideas of masculinity. (She was born and raised in Beijing before moving to London and then Los Angeles as a teenager; she now lives in the US.) Heartbreaking and yet utterly unsentimental, it is one of the best and most important films of the year, for how it contemplates conundrums that are very much of the moment — how do we detoxify our ideas of what makes a man a man? how do we navigate an economy that no longer has much tolerance for human needs? — and gently yet firmly refuses to let them be dismissed or ignored even if it has few resolutions for such thorny matters.
The Rider was the Alliance of Women Film Journalists’ Movie of the Week for April 13th. Read the comments from AWFJ members — including me — on why the film deserves this honor.