The story behind the making of writer/director Chloé Zhao’s second feature, The Rider, is almost as intriguing as the finished film. While doing research for her previous feature, 2015’s Songs My Brothers Taught Me, she went to a ranch where a lanky rodeo rider named Brady Jandreau worked teaching people how to ride horses. Jandreau was such a striking, quietly intense young man that Zhao was determined to put him in a future film.
But when a riding accident left him with a near-fatal head injury (requiring a plate in his head), Zhao became resolute that her next script would center on this man, whom she would also hire to play a thinly veiled version of himself.
The resulting film is an utterly captivating work that could have easily gone wrong in so many places. Not only does Jandreau play saddle bronc rider Brady Blackburn, who opens the film having just checked himself out of the hospital against doctor’s orders with several dozen staples along one side of his partially shaven head, but his real-life father Tim (playing Wayne Blackburn) and Asperger’s-affected sister Lilly (also named Lilly in the movie) are on hand as his family members.
It seems like a safe bet to assume that all of the actors featured in The Rider are first-timers, but thanks to Zhao’s patience and gentle direction, no one embarrasses themselves as a performer. In fact, the bottled-up emotions of many of the characters seem absolutely authentic in a world where men are frequently told to “Cowboy up” whenever their bodies or feelings are injured.
Filmed in the stunning and meditative environs of the Badlands of South Dakota, The Rider opens on Brady’s first morning back from the hospital, and although we don’t know what exactly has happened to him at first, it becomes clear that he should still be in a doctor’s care and that he believes that being home is the first necessary step toward recovering from his injuries. His doctors have told him that the severity of his injury is so bad that he should never ride a horse again, let alone take part in a rodeo. The idea of never riding again is so unthinkable to Brady that he treats his doctor’s orders like a suggestion rather than a life-or-death pronouncement, because a world without riding and competing doesn’t exist.
Zhao doesn’t feel the need to rely too much on exposition to explain Brady’s past or contemplate his current state of mind. His mother died when he was young, and his father is a gruff son of a bitch who has had issues with drinking and gambling. And while sister Lilly is highly functional in the confines of the family ranch, it’s clear that she is always going to need looking after well into adulthood. Brady exiting rodeoing doesn’t just mean he can’t do what he loves most; it means that the family has no steady income from his winnings, and the first sign of financial trouble comes when Wayne is forced to sell Brady’s favorite horse, breaking the son’s heart for the first of many times post-accident.
Cinematographer Joshua James Richards shoots the location’s open fields beautifully but always finds a way to make things appear dark and foreboding, giving Brady enough space to be contemplative as he wrestles with what his identity is without rodeo. We get hints of what his direction might be when we see him act as a horse trainer for a friend (his horse whispering powers are quite strong). In another sequence, he’s training a young man to ride a bronco like a professional. But complications from his head injury crop up from time to time—in the form of nausea and one hand seizing closed to the point where he has to pry his fingers open—making even those career options less likely. He takes a job at a local supermarket and tells the many who recognize him that it’s just temporary while he recovers, and while he may believe this at first, each time he says it to someone, he seems to believe it less.
In a broader sense, The Rider is also about a particular type of masculinity, one that is so deeply intertwined with pride and a fear of losing even the slightest bit of manhood, that cowboys would rather endanger their lives than appear any less tough. Brady drinks and boasts and lies about his prognosis with his other rodeo buddies, but his inability to open up to them about his true fears and newly developed shortcomings is the film’s biggest tragedy. He has an enormous heart, as is evidenced by his frequent visits to his friend Lane, a now-paralyzed former rodeo star, whose condition should act as a warning to Brady. But both men seem to feed off of each other’s kindness, and Brady may even see Lane (who can only communicate with sign language) as a driving force toward his own recovery and getting back on a bronc.
Since its premiere as part of the Directors Fortnight at the 2017 Cannes Film Festival (where it also won the special CICAE Award), The Rider has enjoyed a robust festival life and won many awards on the circuit. It was also nominated for four Film Independent Spirit Awards (including Best Feature and Best Director) earlier this year, so its status as a critical darling is firmly established.
But all of that aside, the piece works because Zhao has the open eyes and big heart of a humanitarian, and she refuses to ignore inspiration in any form when it strikes her squarely between the eyes. Brady, his family, and their world are all uniquely American, while also maintaining a universality that will likely seem familiar to many cultures around the world.
The film opens today at the Music Box Theatre and AMC River East. Read my exclusive interview with The Rider writer/director Chloé Zhao here.