“The Rider” has an unerring feel for its subject, a young cowboy struggling against his fate in the American West. That’s all the more remarkable because this beautiful film was written and directed by Chloé Zhao, a Chinese woman born in Beijing.
The setting is the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota. The rider of the title, Brady Blackburn, is played by Brady Jandreau, but ‘played by’ doesn’t convey the complexity of his performance. The character is a fictionalized version of the nonprofessional actor— he’s a Lakota cowboy and horse trainer who had a promising career on the rodeo circuit until a bucking bronco threw him off, stomped on his head and left him with a traumatic brain injury that required a metal plate in his skull.
Chloe Zhao cast her film entirely with nonprofessionals—members of Brady’s family and friends, including his kid sister, Lilly, who has Asperger’s Syndrome, and his closest friend, Lane Scott. Lane is a former rodeo rider who sustained a catastrophic injury and remains in a rehab facility, paralyzed and mute.
Brady’s doctors have warned him he must never ride again, let alone compete in the rodeos he loves. His body confirms the danger with sporadic seizures, with pain that keeps him popping pills and a right hand he can’t unclench without prying the fingers open with his left hand. Lane’s condition is another stark reminder of who Brady could become if he injures himself again, but he can’t live with his sense of who he is now, a man stripped of the proudest achievements that defined his manhood.
Masculine pride isn’t the only subject of a film that raises issues deftly without naming them. “The Rider” touches on the economic constraints of Brady’s life, and the dwindling place of cowboys in modern culture. But the movie’s main concern is Brady’s pride—in who he was, and was meant to be. And that hand he can’t unclench becomes a symbol of the choice that confronts him. How much of his former life can he let go?
It’s rare to be so affected by a movie hero of so few words, and such vivid ones. Sitting around a fire under a night sky with a group of buddies, Brady recalls his horse-riding days: “I learned a lot being on their backs, looking down on them ears.” And Brady’s friends offer up a Lakota prayer for the fallen Lane, along with the hope “that he gets to ride again, feel the wind at his back, watch it flow through the grass.”
The best parts of the film, though, are quiet ones in which the images tell most of the tale. Watching Brady as he watches a rodeo, his seemingly placid expression masking his excitement, it’s hard to believe that he will resist temptation, and harder to think what may happen if he won’t.
I’m Joe Morgenstern. I’ll be back here next week with more reviews.