Director and writer Chloé Zhao’s film The Rider opens on hypnotic equine images. The camera glides along the tan mane of a horse in slow motion, fading into other closeup images of its snarling mouth, the muscles writhing beneath its thick skin, and ultimately its eye. A quick cut reveals the dreamer, Brady Blackburn (Brady Jandreau), as he jolts awake. After a quick succession of shots depicting Brady drowsily ambulating around his mobile home, the camera goes close again, now on the back of his head as he wedges medical staples and removes gauze from his shaved skull, revealing an inches-long incision held together with even more staples. The wound recalls Frankenstein’s monster, as another character will later observe.
The hypnagogic imagery butts up against brutal reality in what could be called the thesis statement for The Rider. Ostensibly, this is a “sports movie” about Brady, a former star who has suffered a near-fatal accident in his “court” of choice, the rodeo arena. The film is also informed by the reality of its performers, who more or less portray themselves as they work through events shaped from their personal narratives. The genesis for this film is the time Zhao spent on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota making her first feature, Songs My Brother Taught Me (2015). It was during that film that she got to know rodeo star Brady Jandreau and his cohort of rider friends. Due to the circumstances of the film’s development and production, The Rider plays as a slow burn that relies less on the typical triumphant and tragic signposts of the genre and more on the inner life of its protagonist. Brady suffers not only physically but also existentially: Who am I if I’m not on a horse? Furthermore, Zhao’s film poses questions regarding the limitations of depicting “reality” in a quasi-docudrama such as this, and whether or not that matters for the purposes of creating a fully formed vision for the screen.
The gambit of using nonprofessional actors to flesh out versions of themselves is risky, but with Jandreau playing Brady Blackburn it pays off in spades. Zhao and her cinematographer, Joshua James Richards, keep the camera close on the tight-jawed, limitedly emotive Brady, maintaining him at the center of scenes where he’s surrounded by reminders of his localized celebrity. Possessing limited skills outside the rodeo world, the fallen star struggles with his identity and injuries as he takes on a part-time job in a local grocery store, trains horses he knows he shouldn’t ride, and deals with the anguish of being a twentysomething who is already past his prime. Brady remains in this pressure cooker throughout the film, but Jandreau’s reservedness ensures that he rarely betrays his character’s simmering pain to others, requiring the camera and the audience to focus on his eyes as emotional entry points.
The rest of the cast is not as naturally camera-ready as Jandreau, but within The Rider and its hybrid indie film-as-docudrama aesthetic, their performances work. His real-life father and sister, Tim and Lilly Jandreau, play his fictional father and sister, Wayne and Lilly Blackburn. Tim Jandreau eventually warms up after some flat line readings in the film’s first third, lending pathos to a climax where he confronts Brady about leaving to perform at a rodeo. Lilly Jandreau is a bright light in the film and in the life of her brother, and she’s given scenes that don’t utilize her autism for emotional heft or comedic condescension – she simply is.
One of the most tender moments of the film occurs when Brady, after visiting his paralyzed ex-rider friend, Lane Scott – portrayed by the actual Lane Scott, who was injured in a car accident and not riding as the film may imply – breaks down alone in his truck as he fights against welling tears. The scene is a rare glimpse of a rupture in the performative stoic manliness that Zhao, a female filmmaker, is somewhat critical of throughout the film. Granted, when Brady takes his last ride with his beloved horse Gus, she lapses into a giddy-up celebration of horse-riding and its macho bravura with earnest dollies across the plain, all set to a triumphant score. However, the director also points out the relentlessly dangerous nature of rodeo life, as in long scenes of the reflective and paralyzed Lane – who now communicates via American Sign Language – watching videos of his former, do-or-die cowboy self on YouTube.
The schism between past and present selves also manifests itself physically and symbolically in Brady, who suffers from a post-accident condition called “partial complex seizures” in which his hand locks up from a sensory overload from his brain. The past is always somewhat present in The Rider. There’s no mention that the film takes place on the reservation that inspired it or of the history that led to such places. The film disregards the racialized baggage of the cowboy figure that inspires its Native American characters, distinguishing The Rider from the Hollywood images that perpetuated the dualistic formulation of the indigenous enemy and the heroic white man. Closeups of craggy faces against the Western vistas recall the work of Sergio Leone (The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly ) but without the performative filmic grandeur. Silhouettes line the cloud-laden horizon, bringing to mind John Ford’s films, sans the American myth-making of a period piece. (Zhao even subtly duplicates the oft-quoted final shot from The Searchers  that frames John Wayne in a doorway.) Winds move through tall grass as if in Terrence Malick’s Badlands (1973) – a film that shares the same geographical terrain as The Rider – but here there is no divine presence.
These scenes vary from awe-inspiring to Instagram-inspired; some carry the weight of characters lost in a vast landscape and relegated to the predetermined roles their land and society dictate, while others are simply “nice.” The film presents a unique vision springing from Beijing native Zhao’s identification with the Pine Ridge Reservation and the Lakota people who dwell there, but it’s possible that the director is too close to the subjects to imbue her film with more complexity. However, The Rider, which is sure to be Zhao’s breakout film, is certainly enough to encourage any viewer to look forward to the director’s future works.