The Rider is one of those movies whose backstory is almost as compelling as what’s on the screen.
Born and raised in Beijing, writer-director Chloe Zhao attended college in the United States, where she became fascinated by South Dakota and the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in particular. Her debut feature, Songs My Brothers Taught Me, follows a brother and sister struggling to carve out a life at Pine Ridge and plays like Malick on the Rez. The Rider is equally poetic in its imagery, while benefiting from a stronger thematic focus: the identity crisis faced by Brady Blackburn (Brady Jandreau), a young “Lakota cowboy” recovering from a near-fatal rodeo injury. Riding is all he’s known, and the only thing truly admired in this macho subculture. What is his purpose if he can no longer sit in a saddle?
That storyline is drawn directly from Jandreau’s own experience. “Reliving” it on the screen, the young cowboy gives a remarkable performance: quiet but open, tender and angry. (We sense all of this the first moment we meet him, pulling staples out of his head against his doctor’s wishes.)
As in Songs, just about everyone onscreen is a non-professional actor from the Pine Ridge area. Brady’s gruff father (Tim Jandreau) and younger sister (Lilly Jandreau), the latter of whom has Asperger’s syndrome, are played by his actual family members, while the parts of friends and neighbors are all played by novices. The results are hit or miss; Zhao doesn’t have the same facility with non-professionals as, say, The Florida Project’s Sean Baker. Yet one facet of this casting strategy absolutely pays off. Brady’s closest friend Lane (Lane Scott) is another rider whose own injuries have taken away his ability to walk and talk. Like Jandreau, Scott is re-enacting his own story, and the moments of them together at Lane’s rehabilitation center—particularly a devastating scene in which Brady helps Lane ride a makeshift “horse” during a therapy session—have a staggering emotional authenticity.
Zhao balances her instances of small, human intimacy with others of grand, natural beauty. She may not originally be from this region, but she has a natural eye for capturing its vast landscape. (The cinematographer, as on Songs, is Joshua James Richards.) There is an early scene with Brady and his friends drinking beer by a campfire atop a plateau that’s both gorgeous and mournful. It simultaneously evokes and deflates our image of the iconic American West, as these boys—silhouetted in their cowboy gear—handsomely recall the rugged heroes of the past, even as they’re surrounded by a vast emptiness that suggests they’re the only ones of their kind left on earth.
I wish Zhao trusted such images more. They are potent enough to contain the movie’s central dilemma, but the screenplay insists on having multiple characters—including Brady himself—repeatedly state his predicament. There’s also an unfortunate moment in which an obvious horse metaphor is explained to us.
Still, Zhao always manages to pull us back in with a moment of pure cinema, including a stunning sequence about halfway in. A horse trainer before joining the rodeo circuit, Brady has taken a job at this point breaking a stallion for a neighbor, a process Zhao films with extended takes in a corral at sunset. Watching Jandreau work with the animal—alternating gentle caresses with firm commands—is a wonder. Despite the idyllic setting, all artifice falls away. For Brady—Blackburn and Jandreau—this is a rare instance of pure harmony. We’re seeing a man deeply engaged in a way of life that is fading like the sun, particularly for him. Yet the tragic irony of The Rider is it’s the only way he knows how to live.