Chloé Zhao’s The Rider begins in dreamlike abstraction, dust and dirt flying around the hoofs and hair of a great mustang, before shifting into an earthy realism about the post-traumatic life of a cowboy. Tender, empathetic, and visually rich, Zhao’s contemporary nu-Western both affirms and subverts its generic roots, deconstructing and reconstructing the masculinity, violence, and individualism of the American myth. The rider here is Brady (Brady Jandreau), a rodeo cowboy and horse trainer in the badlands of South Dakota. Recovering from a severe head injury after being thrown from his horse in a rodeo competition, Brady’s very identity has been shaken by the fall. Unable to ride until he recovers (if he ever recovers at all), he’s forced to watch from the sidelines and learn what it means to rest and heal. Living with his alcoholic father Tim (Tim Jandreau) and his younger sister Lilly (Lilly Jandreau), Brady trains horses with a pastoral vocation and mission, a dedication to the craft without devolving into obsession. It’s who he is–he’s a cowboy. At one point he tells Lilly that just as mustangs were made by God to run on the plains, cowboys were made to ride. Yet with the lingering physical effects of his injury forcing him to remain on foot, Brady is forced to confront the very sources of his self, what distinguishes Brady The Rodeo Cowboy from Brady The Human Being.
Zhao’s camerawork lingers on both bodies and landscapes with a sense of genuine awe. Scenes with Brady training or riding horses are exhilarating even as they are intimate. This intimacy is also evident in Brady’s interactions with his sister and his friendship with Lane (Lane Scott). The latter is a big brother figure for Brady, a rising rodeo champ who now resides in a rehab center with severe physical trauma after a bull ride gone bad. Brady’s moments with Lane are as pastoral and kindly as with any of the horses, upending any notion of the cowboy as a stoic, lone figure. Richly empathetic and authentic, The Rider depicts the reality of life in this particular time and place without ever becoming expository. By using untrained actors essentially playing themselves, Zhao allows us to get a true sense of what life is actually like on the dusty margins in the center of America via images and decisions: sunlit landscapes of rocks, grain, and grass; trailers with rusted car frames and farm equipment in the yard; the main stores in town appear to be the dollar store, the pawn shop, and the bar; smoking weed and drinking beer by a fire as one offers up prayers to God in the moonlight. These prayer scenes truly affected me in ways I didn’t expect–simple, sincere, and muted, Brady’s prayers are moments of mundane transcendence, ones which brought sudden tears to my eyes. There is life in this film.
There was a moment in The Rider where I thought it was essentially becoming Darren Aronofsky’s The Wrestler, but with rodeo. This wouldn’t have been a negative venture necessarily–I appreciate The Wrestler for its Dardennes-esque aesthetic–but I’m happy to report that The Rider adopts a surprisingly affecting life-affirming humanism which is far more hopeful than Aronfosky’s character study. While one is tempted to narrow the film’s message into a simplistic (and literal) “pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and get back on the horse,” The Rider resists such easy interpretations and expands audience imaginations via the natural wonder of the ordinary with a sense of cinematic poetry and verve. Sometimes the most heroic gesture of strength is not to get back onto the horse, but to be present to the pain and heartbeat of others, to listen and love and stay and heal.
IMDB Listing: https://www.imdb.com/title/tt6217608/