Describing the premise of The Rider does not do it justice. It sounds like a typical indie drama, or something out of a Nicolas Sparks novel. What makes the film special is director Chloé Zhao’s empathy for her subjects. So much could have gone wrong, since she uses a cast of non-actors and bases the film on their lives, and yet she finds an unassuming naturalism that draws the viewer into small, high stakes world. There is also a lyricism at work, to the point where The Rider recalls the grandeur of classic John Ford westerns. That Zhao achieves so much, with only a crew of six at her disposal, is nothing short of remarkable.
Brady Jandreau plays Brady, a fictionalized version of himself. He is convalescing after a terrible accident on the rodeo circuit: Zhao quickly shows us the painful-looking staples on the side of his head. Routine – or the desire for routine – are what define the opening scenes. Brady passes the time by hanging with his buddies – all of whom are Native American like him – and helping his family while he considers his future. He wants to get back on the saddle, literally, but he’s still reeling from the head trauma. Sometimes Brady loses control of his hands – they lock up, leaving a feeling of humiliation – and that loss could be fatal on a horse. On the other hand, Brady’s identity is tied to the one thing he is good at, and he not quite prepared to resign to a safer, more ordinary life.
The story behind The Rider is almost as remarkable as the film itself. Zhao was drawn to Jandreau’s life, and eventually he even taught her how to ride a horse. The collaboration cut both ways, as her approach straddles the line between fiction and documentary. Brady’s family, including his developmentally disabled sister, are played by his actual family. Another rider named Lane Scott plays himself and Brady’s friend, but his injuries are even worse: he is paralyzed. Zhao takes some liberties with the biographical detail (Lane was in a car crash, not a riding accident), and yet the verisimilitude has an immersive quality to it. I cannot help but wonder how Zhao convinced them all to get on board with a project like this.
In some ways, The Rider is like The Wrestler, except about the rodeo. In both films, we get snippets into small-scale competitions from both sports. We also watch an athlete as his body fails him. The difference is that The Wrestler has a melodramatic quality to it, including a romantic subplot. The Rider eschews such storytelling, to the point where it is borderline grim about Brady’s daily difficulties.
The constant subtext is how Brady yearns for the glory of riding a horse, but he internalizes his responsibility to his family first. There are many scenes where we watch him at work, including a remarkable sequence where Brady singlehandedly tames several wild horses. No professional actor has this command over animals – at least not since Hollywood’s Golden Age where Westerns were common – so The Rider also serves as a testament to unique skills that are slowly being forgotten.
Most Westerns are celebration of the cowboy, a rugged individualist that has captured the American imagination for centuries. The idea of a cowboy living off the land, uncompromised by civilization, is so ingrained that we accept the appeal of Westworld without question. Cowboys are often a masculine idea, and indeed The Rider is about a young man contending with a masculine part of his identity. There is scene midway through the film where Brady works at a grocery store, and he seems emasculated like the soldier at the end of The Hurt Locker. The irony is that even if Brady has a full recovery, a menial job would probably still be necessary.
By the time The Rider reaches its heartbreaking conclusion, Zhao lets us see Brady’s fantasy of himself. He is so close to realizing this fantasy that the imagery is both exhilarating and tragic. Even an actual cowboy has no choice but to daydream of something just beyond his grasp.