A rodeo rider has to leave the life he loves in this film — part documentary, part fiction — about modern-day horsemen
Starring: Brady Jandreau, Tim Jandreau, Lilly Jandreau
Directed by: Chloe Zhao
Rating: 4 stars out of 5
Running time: 103 minutes
By Jay Stone
Brady Jandreau is a 20ish rodeo rider from South Dakota who had a terrible accident — a horse stepped on his head — that forced him to consider quitting the thing loves. The Rider, by a Chinese-born filmmaker named Chloe Zhao, is a version of that story: part Western, part meditation on what it means to be a man, part elegy for a way of life.
It is a spare, quiet and sad movie, and quite a beautiful one. Zhao, who spent most of her life in the United States and went to film school in New York City, met Jandreau when she was making another movie in South Dakota, and decided she wanted to make a film with him. A plot presented itself when he had his accident, and she wrote a story in which he portrays a man named Brady Blackburn, who like Jandreau is a Lakota Indian. Brady’s father Tim is played by Jandreau’s real-life father — a rodeo rider himself, with a cowboy’s tough code of terse disapproval — and his sister Lilly is played by his real-life sibling, a sweet teenager with a mental disability who dotes on her brother and invents lovely songs about the stars and the weather.
The Rider lacks some of the drama of the traditional Western. There’s no fighting, no shootouts, no ranchers trying to run the sheepherders out of town. There aren’t many women either: what we know of Brady and his boisterous friends comes in a scene where they sit in the darkening range, talk about rodeo gossip, and try to dismiss Brady’s catastrophic brain injury — his skull is stapled together and he has a metal plate in his head — as one of life’s little bumps. He has to cowboy up.
If there’s a female presence, it comes in a remembered lyric to the old Ian Tyson song Someday Soon: “He loves his damned old rodeo as much as he loves me.” Brady has been around horses his whole life, and roping and riding are what he knows. When it looks as if the family trailer will be repossessed, he has to get a job at the local supermarket, working the checkout counter and mopping floors. Cowboys who shop there look at him with a trace of pity that’s never stated — people in The Rider are polite and respectful — but you feel the heartbreak in their terse goodbyes.
The only way Brady can stay in their world is to become a horse trainer, and documentary-like scenes of Jandreau taming a wild stallion named Apollo are thrilling in many ways. Watching someone do something well is always deeply satisfying, and watching a man communing with a horse, using a combination of guile, gentleness and understanding, has a visceral joy that connects you to the basic truths of the ranch. There’s a reason we love the stripped-down morality of Westerns.
The tension in The Rider comes mostly when Brady goes to a hospital to visit his friend, a rodeo rider named Lane Scott who has suffered a terrible accident that has left him paralyzed (Lane Scott is a real person, although he was paralyzed in a car accident, not at the rodeo.) He represents the future, what Brady might look forward to if he is foolish enough to ride again. But how can he stop?
Zhao lets most of this be told in the faces of her cast, all amateur actors simply playing themselves. You can see why she wanted to work with Jandreau: aside from his good looks (he’s a sort of grittier Brad Pitt) he has a laconic expressiveness, at once tough and sensitive, and the camera loves him. Part of this is due to his authenticity. The Rider finds its strength in the truth of its story, and in the hardscrabble loveliness of the South Dakota reserve where it was shot. It lacks the majesty of, say, a John Ford ode to the soaring west, but it shares with Ford’s films a respect for the great Western myth.
I was reminded of the Ford discovery Ben Johnson, a champion rodeo rider who became a superb supporting actor in a series of movies (he’s Chris, the redeemed bad guy in Shane; he won an Oscar as the movie-house owner in The Last Picture Show.) Watch him in the 1950 John Wayne film Rio Grande and you’re galvanized by the scene of him riding his horse at full-speed across the plains, and by his lack of artifice.
Jandreau shares that tone of quiet honesty. You believe in him. He’s a cowboy who can’t be a cowboy anymore, and he has to find a way to turn that tragedy into some true way of moving on.
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