Writer-director Chloé Zhao met Brady Jandreau while filming her debut work, Songs My Brothers Taught Me, on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota. Jandreau was a rodeo rider who, in April 2016, fell and was trampled, necessitating a metal plate in his skull and resulting in a permanent brain injury. His condition left him unable to perform in rodeos.
That’s where The Rider picks up, with Jandreau portraying a fictionalized version of himself (“Brady Blackburn”) with his father, sister and friends also portraying themselves. You don’t need to know the reality of Brady’s story going in, but Zhao’s approach to the story feels so true that the actual authenticity is just additive. This isn’t The 15:17 to Paris, where the filmmakers wanted to idolize real people by letting them play themselves. The Rider feels like Zhao holding up a microphone to a person she knows, letting him express from the heart the journey of redefining his life.
I’ve not seen a movie quite like this yet in 2018 — so resonant, heartfelt, understated.
There are many films about the damage professional sports can cause to physical body, but many of them end with a “triumphant” rejection of the body’s limits or an athlete accepting the certain death associated with his or her return to the ring but doing so anyway. The Rider is not that movie. It’s ponderous and thoughtful, explaining the significance of what being in the rodeo and working with horses means to Brady and his community. The cinematography by Joshua James Richards is tremendous, capturing the landscapes of his world. Brady’s story isn’t about overcoming an obstacle, it’s about accepting it and moving forward. He can’t ride anymore. How does he define himself as a man when disability prevents him from riding? What does that mean to him, to his friendships, to his family, to his purpose?
“With disabilities.” Even writing that sentence feels, in a sense, ableist. It sounds like the act of having a disability is something to be overcome and / or ashamed of… I think a lot of movies, and sports movies, inadvertently create that narrative. In a lesser movie the brain damage that not only prevents him from riding but changes the way his body works would be Brady’s greatest challenge, and in the end maybe he’d ride again. Certainly Brady feels that way at first. And he struggles. Yet Zhao never treats Brady’s new status quo with that perspective, and she never builds the world around him in that way, either.
His sister, Lilly, has Asperger syndrome (unmentioned but Google-able) but she’s present the whole way, a key part of Brady’s life and story. Brady’s friend Lane, also portrayed by real-life former bull-rider Lane Scott, has severe physical disabilities caused (as best I could find online) by a car accident. The movie implies he was hurt in a rodeo accident – I might be wrong. Zhao’s intent is to create a movie that isn’t primarily about a man who sits around worried, fighting against himself like “Damn my disability, I’d better kill myself because what I love defines me more than who I love.” It’s not that movie. This isn’t a story about how the metal plate in his head makes him less-than he was, or how his sister is less than, or how Lane is less-than.
That’s not our world, and that’s not The Rider.
There are reviews out there that mention The Rider as a one-trick pony or not having much story. In a sense that’s true. It’s a pure character piece. Brady moves through his life trying to figure out where he fits in after his accident. He tries to sell his old equipment. He fraternizes with his old friends, he visits Lane, he takes care of Lilly, he interacts with his father. He finds a wild horse named Apollo, whose rough attitude makes him the sort of horse Brady would’ve loved to try taming when he could still ride him. It’s a journey, and Zhao manages to capture the intimacy of a life changed without compromising the dramatization or adding fictional stakes.
I watched The Rider about a week ago and I’ve listened to Nathan Halpern’s score several times; it’s a short one, slightly generic, reminiscent of other recent western scores … Warren Ellis’ work comes to mind. It’s fitting and gorgeous and melancholy.
2018 has gotten off to a fascinating start. The two best movies — this and You Were Never Really Here — concern men undergoing a redefinition of what it means to be masculine when you are spiritually or physically lost. Both are written and directed by women. Never let it be said that we have enough movies about men by women. The two movies couldn’t be more different in tone, style, approach or even subject. They’re not a natural double feature; their only true similarity as films is that they’re insightful, empathetic approaches to classically masculine genres, and the difference shows.
They’re best of the year so far, and high bars to beat.