“Chloé Zhao’s The Rider serves as a testament for why making the extra effort to tell underrepresented stories matters.”
Title: The Rider (2018)
Director: Chloé Zhao 👩🏻🇨🇳
Writer: Chloé Zhao 👩🏻🇨🇳
Reviewed by Mimi 👩🏻🇺🇸
Chinese filmmaker Chloé Zhao reinvigorates the exhausted genre of the American Western with her contemporary take, The Rider. In place of a gun-slinging cowboy, the movie introduces us to an up-and-coming rodeo star named Brady Blackburn (Brady Jandreau) following his near-fatal riding accident.
The opening scene establishes the unquestionable grit of our fallen hero as we watch him use a pocket knife to remove staples from his head. As the film unfolds, we track not only Brady’s physical rehabilitation, but his emotional and psychological journey as well. Persistent close-ups of his face convey the conflict swirling underneath his otherwise placid demeanor as the question of whether or not Brady will ever be able to ride again plagues him and audience alike.
This intimate drama plays out against a vast backdrop of South Dakota’s windswept badlands. Cinematographer Joshua James Richards captures the rugged landscape with a sense of awe and reverence, suggesting that it’s not the “Wild West” that needs taming. Rather, it’s modernity that Brady lives in conflict with. It’s particularly defeating to see him wearing a corporate polo and restocking shelves at what he hopes will just be a temporary job. But apart from pawning his saddle, his options are limited, especially for someone living in poverty without a high school diploma. When his father Wayne (played by his actual father, Tim Jandreau) is forced to sell his horse Gus in order help make ends meet, Brady takes Gus for one last ride. The bittersweet yet transcendent moment is the first time we witness Brady as he’s meant to be—truly free.
Knowing that Zhao wrote a script based on the actor’s real life, it’s commendable how respectfully she treats the source material while still crafting a deliberate narrative. Almost equally impressive is how she draws such honest performances out of a cast of non-actors. Though the pacing may be on the quiet and slow side for some, it’s difficult to point to a single superfluous scene or shot in the otherwise economical and precise work.
On the surface, there appears to be an absence of women. Brady’s mom has passed away. There’s no female love interest. And yet, behind the camera women occupy key positions of power, not least of which includes Zhao as director and writer. Onscreen, her work translates into a story that’s full of tenderness.
As an experienced horse trainer, Brady possesses what could only be described as a gift for pacifying even the most stubborn of creatures. He’s a caretaker of not only animals but also the people in his life, such as his younger sister Lilly (Lilly Jandreau).
Meanwhile, Brady forges strong bonds with many of his fellow riders, perhaps the most moving of which he shares with another former rodeo star, Lane Scott (as himself). In real life, Lane suffered both brain and spinal cord damage in an accident in 2013 that left him partially paralyzed and unable to speak. In The Rider, Brady regularly visits the big brother figure he once looked up to at a rehab facility, where they rewatch old videos from Lane’s glory days. In highlighting this relationship, the film chips away at the tough-guy bravado normally associated with the cowboy archetype. Macho posturing remains alive and well among Brady’s other male friends, who brag about the injuries they’ve sustained while still being able to “cowboy up” (another version of “man up”) in order to continue competing. Confronted with the reality that he might die if he ignores his doctor’s advice to stop riding, Brady begins questioning the “cowboy up” mentality that influenced his upbringing—and that perhaps inadvertently reinforced a lifestyle reliant on risk-taking.
Brady does sling his gun for show at some point, but when it comes time to actually use the weapon on a horse that he’s grown fond of and that needs to be put down, he can’t bring himself to do it. Without shaming him, his father steps in to assist. The same can be said of the movie itself, which patiently embraces each emotional turn from Brady. What Zhao accomplishes through the power of the female gaze is a compelling rebuttal of toxic masculine behavior, wherein The Rider serves as a beautiful study on vulnerable masculinity.
GradeMyMovie.com Assessment: 33% of key cast and crew members were POC.
Given the subtlety of the narrative, one could easily miss the fact that the cast is almost entirely Native American, including lead actor Jandreau himself.
Zhao was first introduced to “Indian cowboys,” as she calls them, while shooting her first feature Songs My Brother Taught Me (2015) which also spotlights Lakota Sioux actors and characters from the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota. “Some of them look just like white kids, but they’re real members of the Sioux tribe,” Zhao says. “They’re born, raised, and live on a reservation.”
Seamlessly woven into the storytelling, Brady’s Indigenous identity may not be explicitly mentioned but it absolutely informs every aspect of his life. It manifests in his unmistakable connection to the land, the animals, and the people around him. The community’s struggle to survive in a post-colonial society reveals how Brady’s entire way of living—not just his ability to earn money by competing in rodeos and training horses—is under threat. The irony in Zhao’s Western is that America itself is responsible for destroying the very symbolic figure of freedom, the cowboy, that it once popularized. That sense of loss mingles with Brady’s personal reckoning, and transforms the brief moments of him gracefully riding across the plain into a visual elegy.
Bonus for Disability: +1.00
Multiple characters living with different disabilities come into focus over the course of the film. Lilly’s Aspergers is openly presented but in a manner that never overshadows nor serves as a substitute for her personality. Playing herself, she demonstrates that she’s creative, unafraid to speak her mind, and intensely supportive of her older brother.
Also grounded in reality, Lane’s circumstances are undeniably tragic, yet the story refrains from sensationalizing what happened to him. Neither does it attempt to gloss over the seriousness, given his character’s significance to Brady and the parallels in their stories. Brady himself is learning to cope with restricted motor functions and possibly recurring seizures, and it’s unclear whether or not they will become chronic conditions. It’s a bonus that these individuals are able to represent narrativized versions of who they are.
Mediaversity Grade: A- 4.67/5
As a filmmaker, Zhao set up a challenge for herself that she mindfully meets in not only taking on a story inspired by someone else’s real life, but also collaborating with this person. Even more impressive is how, as an outsider, she took care to let Jandreau’s experiences speak for themselves. The Rider serves as a testament for why making the extra effort to seek out creative ways to tell underrepresented stories matters, and how fruitful the outcome can be.