Once a rising star of the rodeo circuit, and a gifted horse trainer, young cowboy Brady is warned that his riding days are over, after a horse crushed his skull at a rodeo. Back home on the Pine Ridge Reservation, with little desire or alternatives for a different way of life, Brady’s sense of inadequacy mounts as he is unable to ride or rodeo – the essentials of being a cowboy. In an attempt to regain control of his own fate, Brady undertakes a search for new identity and what it means to be a man in the heartland of America.
**_Honest, raw, and respectful_**
> _I never really had a choice to be a cowboy. It was just in my blood. It was the way my family lived; grew up on horses my whole life. I would ride a horse all by myself when I was about a year-and-a-half. I don't really know anything else. I wouldn't have it any other way._
Partly an elegy for a dissipating way of life, partly an examination of the self-destructive components of contemporary masculinity, and partly a deconstruction of the iconography of the American frontier, _The Rider_ is the second film from Chinese-American writer/director Chloé Zhao, and is intimately tied to her debut, _Songs My Brothers Taught Me_ (2015). Set in the same location in South Dakota, featuring the same _milieu_, and covering some of the same thematic ground, _The Rider_ also owes a more practical debt to _Songs_. When she was researching that film, Zhao met rodeo rider Brady Jandreau, who taught her how to ride a horse. Promising him she would cast him in one of her subsequent films, Zhao soon learned that Jandreau had sustained a serious cranial injury in a rodeo accident, and been told by doctors that he must give up the only way of life he had ever known, as another blow to the head could kill him. Inspired by his story, Zhao wrote _The Rider_, a loosely fictionalised version of Jandreau's experiences, in which she cast entirely non-professional actors, including the real Jandreau, his father, sister, and several of his friends, all playing versions of themselves. The result is a semi-fictional docudrama, and one of the finest films of the year.
Set on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, Brady Blackburn (Brady Jandreau) lives just above the poverty line with his father Wayne (Tim Jandreau) and his sister Lilly (Lilly Jandreau), who suffers from autism. Several months previously, Brady suffered a near-fatal head injury after falling from a bronco, which has left him with a huge scar on the side of his head, and ongoing neurological damage causing severe seizures in his right hand. Warned by doctors that if he attempts to ride again, a single innocuous fall could kill him, Brady finds his very sense of self challenged as he attempts to function in a society where every man lives by the maxim of "_ride or die_". No longer the rugged cowboy he believed himself to be, Brady takes a job stacking shelves in a local supermarket. However, feeling his life has become deeply unfulfilling, Brady begins to find the call of the rodeo increasingly difficult to ignore.
_The Rider_ is most definitely not a plot-driven film. Consisting almost entirely of a series of vignettes showing Brady going about his day, rather than a well-thought-out cause-and-effect narrative, Zhao also shuns traditional character arcs, and expressive, writerly dialogue. However, this is not a criticism; rather, the form perfectly mirrors the content. Humanistic without resorting to mawkish sentimentality, empathetic without employing cheap emotional manipulation, and honest without rushing to judgement, although the film certainly does critique Brady's desire to ride again, so too does it respect the fact that this is the only thing which has ever given his life meaning. Zhao's superbly balanced screenplay is both tactful and subtle, graceful and understated, exhibiting a rare emotional probity that goes hand-in-hand with its expertly realised naturalistic style.
In depicting Brady's struggle with his new life, Zhao is able to simultaneously romanticize and demythologise the role of the cowboy in the contemporary United States. As the story progresses, the film comes more and more to express a sense of disillusionment with the lifestyle of Brady and his friends, with their "damn the torpedoes" attitude becoming increasingly exposed as bravado. Part of this is the theme of the rodeo itself. So eloquently panegyrised in the early parts of the film, the rodeo is also presented as leading to physical ruin and mental anguish. Indeed, one of the film's primary motifs is that of injuries sustained whilst riding. The men who espouse this lifestyle say things such as, "_Cowboy up. Grit your teeth. Be a man_", (spoken by Wayne), "_rub some dirt in it_" (advice offered on how to recover from injury), "_ride through the pain_", and, "_head and ribs, all the same to a cowboy_". Brady's friends also point out that if they can't ride, they'll have little option but to "_become farmers_", a road none wish to take.
In relation to this, it's extremely telling that literally every male Brady meets, from young boys to elderly men, all express their desire that he start riding again, although many of them know why he stopped. On the other hand, one of the few female characters tells him pointedly, "_problem with you boys, you don't like to get your pride hurt_". However, unlike most of his friends, who urge him to shake off the injury, Brady is self-aware enough to admit, "_you know you'll get hurt, but you don't ever think you'll get hurt like that_". But although he is able to admit that, by contrast, he is he unable to shake his love of riding, especially the romanticised nature of such, telling Lilly towards the end of the film, "_God gives each of us a purpose. For a horse, it's to run across the prairie. For a cowboy, it's to ride_". Brady and his friends are personifications of the ruggedness of the American West, and the film uses them to facilitate a deconstruction of the notions of contemporary masculinity which they represent.
That Brady is indeed a cowboy, and sees himself as such, is emphasised several times. For example, the film makes us aware that Pine Ridge was once the frontier, but is now a dying backwater, where everybody who can leave has already left. This is also where the theme of respect comes in – the self-destructive nature of the life Brady and friends live is more than simply an adrenaline addiction. Rather it offers them the validation which they are unable to find anywhere else. Yes, they see themselves as modern day-cowboys, in an age where cowboys serve no function – their clothes are classic movie cowboy (stetson, plaid shirt, dirty jeans, cowboy boots, bolo ties), and many of them (including Brady) even wear six-shooters. But this is the only life they have known, and whilst the film leaves the audience in little doubt that this lifestyle can lead to ruin, so too does it ensure the viewer knows that Zhao has the deepest respect for these guys, depicting, as it does, the kind of desperation and limited choices that leave a young man with only one route, a route which often overrides any common sense he may have.
An important distinction to be made here is that, yes, the film is about masculinity, but it is not about "toxic masculinity". Never once does it feel like Zhao is looking down on or satirising Brady and his friends. Rather, she's criticising the situation in which they find themselves; forced to live a life of bluster and posturing. But Zhao makes sure the audience understands at all times the honour and tradition to which they subscribe.
The most telling example of this is Lane (Lane Scott). As with the real-life Brady, Lane was a celebrated rodeo with a reputation for riding broncos no one else would touch. The embodiment of machismo, with a devil-may-care attitude, we see Lane at the height of his popularity via YouTube videos, adored by the women in the audience and envied by the men. However, as in the film, the real Lane is now almost completely paralysed, capable of communicating only by signing with his left hand, and living permanently in a care facility. The only difference between the real-life Lane and his fictional counterpart is that in reality, he was paralysed in a car crash, whereas in the film it was via riding. This differentiation is telling as it speaks to Zhao's thematic intent. However, as with the other riders, Lane is presented with a great deal of reverence, and never does it feel like the film is saying, "look at what the rodeo did to this guy; he must be a total idiot."
In a sense, whilst the film partially recalls John Huston's _The Misfits_ (1961), its real thematic precursor is Darren Aronofsky's _The Wrestler_ (2008), an examination of male pride working against common sense, of professional dedication, of machoism gone awry. As with _The Wrestler_, the story of _The Rider_ is archetypal. _The Wrestler_ was about wrestling, but it could have been about any sport, and _The Rider_ is even more universal. Yes, it too could have been about any sport, but it could also have been about any environ in which a young male tries to balance the dangers of what he does with the possibility of some kind of reward (whether financial or spiritual) at the end of it all – a young bank robber up against a tough and determined cop (to quote Michael Mann's _Heat_ (1995), "_risk versus reward_"); a young boxer hoping he can make a better life for himself with just a couple more fights; a drug dealer hoping to stay off the radar of the drug lord he's crossed; a town where all the men work in the mines, or in a steel mill, or on a rig, and a young man joins the workforce despite knowing the risks involved.
Looking at things aesthetically, the film opens with a shot of a horse during a storm, followed by loud thunder. The immediate impression is one of almost elemental forces – two extremes of nature coming together. This is immediately contrasted with Brady waking up and heading into his dingy bathroom to pluck off the staples holding the bandage on his still raw head wound. Thus, in just two shots, Zhao sets up the entire theme of the film – poetic rhetoric and romantic myths are all very well and good, but day to day mundanity can so often get in the way.
Elsewhere, the centrepiece of the film, and probably the most beautiful sequence, is when Brady decides the only opportunity of which he can avail to allow him to stay around horses without risking his life is to break in young broncos. The single-take shot where he breaks in an "untrainable" horse is searingly beautiful in its simplicity and elegance. The lack of edits gives it an unmanipulated emotional sense, whilst also meaning there can be no cheating – we're really watching Brady Jandreau break in a stubborn horse. The gentle approach he employs, the constant reassurances to the animal, the way he holds the rope, how he gets the horse used to someone on its back without actually getting all the up, his grace and intuition, his confidence; the totality is, simply put, achingly perfect. What we are seeing obviously comes from a deep natural inclination in the real-life Brady. You can't teach this kind of brilliance, no matter what the discipline is. Indeed, his gentle approach itself is completely at variance with such scenes in other westerns, where we're usually shown someone breaking in a horse by forcing it to respect them, and that in itself speaks as much to Zhao's theme as anything else. It's this sense of docudrama/realism/naturalism, whatever you want to call it, that really makes _The Rider_ stand out.
Indeed, even the supporting characters, most of whom feature in only a few scenes, are well-rounded and nuanced. Take Wayne, for example. Yes, he's not much of a father, beaten down by loss and regret, he drinks too much and gambles money the family don't have. But he clearly loves both Brady and Lilly, he obviously deeply misses his wife and is unsure how to live without her (just as Brady is unsure how to live without the rodeo), and he understands Brady's passion but is also supportive of whatever it is his son ultimately decides to do. In a lesser film, he would be the token villain, unable to fathom why his son behaves the way he does, until a huge blow-off emotional moment at the end when father and son are forced to see one another in a different light. _The Rider_ has no time for such scenes, and is all the better for it.
If I had one criticism, it would be that the film runs out of momentum a little in the third quarter, although it picks up again in the last 20 minutes or so. However, aside from that, I literally cannot find a bad thing to say about this film.
Bleak but beautiful, honest, but deeply respectful, realistic but profoundly poetic, Zhao's depiction of a dying culture, a dying breed, a dying way of life – the adrenaline-junkie bronco riders, America's modern cowboys – is easily one of the finest films of the year. And how ironic is it that one of the best examinations of American masculinity that you're likely to see in a long time is written and directed by a woman? And a woman born in China to boot. That's sure to irritate the misogynists/xenophobes no end!
Highwayman Films, Caviar by Chloé Zhao.
Stars: Brady Jandreau, Mooney, Tim Jandreau, Lilly Jandreau.
Genres: Drama, Western
Keywords: rodeo horseback riding horse riding accident head injury sioux cowboy native american reservation lasso hook for a hand south dakota 21st century disabled person
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