Subtle, elemental and powerfully beautiful, writer-director Chloe Zhao’s “The Rider” is the Western of the new century, and the most enveloping film experience I’ve had this year.
Even a hack director could make something of the southwestern South Dakota landscapes near Wounded Knee, lined by the Badlands, and foregrounded by the people who live, work, ride and risk their lives there.
But with this, the second feature written and directed by Beijing-born and American-educated Zhao, we have ample evidence of a filmmaker whose storytelling instincts combine the prose of documentary with the poetry of a cinematic natural.
The same can be said of the main character as portrayed, close to the bone and to his own experience, by a real-life Lakota cowboy named Brady Jandreau. Now 22, he is everything “The Rider” needs. He’s an authentic presence, with trace elements of Christian Bale and Heath Ledger around the eyes, utterly at home in every shot, whether it’s in the confines of a trailer or a hospital bed, in tight close-up, or outside under the sky, with the animals with whom he’s almost supernaturally in sync.
A critic risks mythologizing a newcomer or a film with such descriptions. Happily, Zhao has a sharp sense of when, and how, to hit the brakes on the wrong, corny kind of rugged individualism. This film cuts straight to the complicated heart of the right kind.
We first see Brady Blackburn, Jandreau’s lightly fictionalized version of himself, in bed, waking with a start after dreaming of horses. A behind-the-back traveling shot, after he gets up, reveals a head bandage. We see a horrifying row of staples once he removes the bandage; the staples are holding a deep gash in his skull together, and as the young man Saran-wraps his head before showering, we begin piecing together the recent events of his life.
He has suffered a severe head injury getting thrown off a bronco at a rodeo. His recovery is an uncertain question mark. His rope hand is crippled up, his fingers unable to clasp and unclasp at will. With his rodeo buddies, early in the picture, Brady sits around a campfire surrounded by darkness. “By NFL standards,” one says, referring to his “10-plus concussions … I should be dead.”
Brady lives at home with his father, a taciturn denizen of the bars and casino poker stools, and his 15-year-old sister, a vibrant spirit living with Asperger’s syndrome. They’re played by Jandreau’s real-life father and sister; Brady’s friends are played by his real friends. “The Rider” belongs in the Badlands between fiction and nonfiction, and Zhao knows her way around. Rarely are these relative screen newcomers asked to pump up the dramatics.
The movie seems to be happening naturally, even when the individual shots composed so effortlessly by Zhao and her cinematographer (and real-life partner) Joshua James Richards cast a forlorn spell.
The story follows a clear through line, concerning how hard it is to give up the most important thing in your life. Brady tries to ignore his calling, on doctor’s orders; one more head injury could kill him. Like Mickey Rourke in “The Wrestler” (which director Zhao has cited as one of several inspirations), Brady tries to adjust to a new, tamer routine, working various jobs at a supermarket and settling for training his friends how to last eight seconds in the ring. His best friend, Lane (played with fierce resolve by Lane Scott), is paralyzed from a rodeo fall. He is living proof of the dangers of this life.
But when “The Rider” takes the time to show Brady in his element, training wild horses, the movie captures brilliantly just how hard it’ll be for him to leave the horses behind. In one particular minutelong take, Brady and his newest horse, Apollo, become a team, Brady riding him in tight circles, teaching him to trust the one holding the reins.
There’s little that’s traditionally reassuring about such moments, but they’re seriously moving and persuasive. Even the dialogue is designed for expedient information (“You look like your mom,” a temp agency employee says to Brady, whose mother died a while ago) comes across with a light touch. Coaching his friend, using a makeshift mechanical contraption, Brady mutters: “Ride it like it’s gonna be the last horse you’ll ever get on.” The line comes and goes before we know it, yet it’s a statement of character that feels heartbreakingly true.
Westerns have been selling variations on that line, and this sort of story, ever since the silent days (and in dime novels before that). The difference here, with “The Rider,” lies in the ambiguities too often left out. Brady’s life’s work may kill him; a life without it may kill him more slowly. Director Zhao got to know the Lakota Sioux and the Indian cowboys (fantastic paradox) on her previous feature, “Songs My Brothers Taught Me.”
She met Jandreau, a member of the Lower Brule Sioux Tribe, in 2015 on the Pine Ridge Reservation. She realized this man, this face, this life deserves a film. And her film deserves your time and attention, not because it’s “worthy,” not even because it takes you to a striking part of America and American myth you may not know, but because it’s just plain excellent.