Big chunks of Lakota cowboy Brady Jandreau’s biography appear in The Rider, a new drama about an injured rodeo performer torn between his new reality and everything he knows himself to be. The near-fatal accident that Jandreau suffered at age 20, when a horse stomped on his head, makes it into writer-director Chloé Zhao’s naturalistic but often tense film. So do Jandreau’s real-life father Tim, autistic younger sister Lilly, and best friend Lane Scott, a former rider paralyzed at age 19 who can only communicate by signing letters with a single, shaky hand. (The actual Scott lost his mobility in a car crash, but the film implies that his character experienced a catastrophe in the ring.) Through Zhao’s empathetic lens, what we see isn’t miserabilism but simply the trials of life.
When we first meet the fictional Brady, a railroad track runs across the side of his head. The chain of surgical staples anchoring a plate against his skull makes him look like Frankenstein, one of his buddies later jokes, but Brady’s greater concern is the occasional loss of control over his right hand. Nominated for four Independent Spirit Awards, The Rider has no plot, per se. Rather, it’s a vista-worshipping, socially observant, and altogether moving exploration of how difficult it is to be wise even when the alternative is statistically guaranteed death. I found it sometimes hard rooting for Brady, knowing all that’s stacked against him. I wanted to protect my own heart.
A few months after the accident, Brady has built for himself a constellation of duties. He’s a good brother to the developmentally delayed Lilly, a 15-year-old constantly refusing her dad’s instructions to start wearing a bra. He visits Lane at the latter’s residential facility, where they rewatch almost shockingly vibrant videos of the once-brash rider on Brady’s phone. In possession of neither a high-school diploma nor a GED, Brady—a minor celebrity in his small town, where rodeo highlights seem to be on loop on TV—works a variety of menial jobs at the local mega-mart. His friends, his fans, his customers—any boy or young man who has the tiniest inkling of who Brady is—offer him well-meaning bouquets of platitudes: Man up, stay tough, follow your dreams. Brady never tells any of them that he’s quit the rodeo, though we can’t be sure he’ll follow through on that decision.
The Rider knows that Brady’s caught up in the cult of daredevil masculinity in which a bid for glory, no matter how fleeting, is worth the risk of grave bodily harm. “By NFL standards, I should be dead,” cracks a cowboy about his 10 concussions. As Zhao frames it, the rodeo is a venue where everyone’s luck runs out eventually—the only question is the decibel level of the crunch. Brief shots of wild horses bucking angrily against their riders suggest not just the achievement of holding on for a split-second longer than your competitor but also the evident respect the performers have for the animals. It’s impossible to pry apart the danger of the sport from its ferocious beauty. Zhao reserves all judgment: She just wants us to see in riding what the riders see. If Brady’s horsemanship is informed at all by his Native American heritage, we never hear about it. The Rider is set on a reservation, but I didn’t catch that—or the white-passing Jandreaus’ tribal affiliation—until my research for this review. It’s possible I missed signs of their Native Americanness; it’s also possible that the film reflects the characters’ cultural assimilation.
The auteur that The Rider and Zhao’s 2015 debut feature, the Lakota coming-of-age drama Songs My Brothers Taught Me, call to mind is Andrea Arnold. The Beijing-raised, London- and Mount Holyoke–educated filmmaker shares with the American Honey helmer an interest in young people at the margins, a knack for eliciting fantastic performances from amateur or under-the-radar actors, and what film critic April Wolfe described to me as a “dream-like realism.” Zhao’s films are more accessible, but they, too, require that viewers adjust themselves to her unhurried, stopping-to-gaze-at-the-mountains rhythm. That doesn’t mean The Rider won’t make its audiences’ heartbeats accelerate. Brady’s too-easy transition into horse training cues us for a disaster waiting to happen. We learn to be as attentive as he is to each equine movement, searching for signs of fear and fury.
The horses resist domestication, and so does Brady. It’s a metaphor that Zhao leans on a little too heavily in the later scenes, and at times her hand becomes a little too visible on-screen. The Rider would also have benefited from letting us more into the broncobuster’s thoughts instead of focusing on the hurdles that stand in his way. But the film makes its primary case eloquently and elegiacally: The only thing more lonesome than a cowboy, surveying a land where no one understands him, is that same cowboy without a horse.