Sweeping vistas and earnest, ultra-realistic performances are at the heart of Chloe Zhao’s moving drama “The Rider,” which follows the struggles of a modern cowboy after his promising rodeo career is cut short by a grave injury. The drama was filmed almost entirely on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota and features Pine Ridge residents — members of the Lakota tribe — playing thinly fictionalized versions of themselves. Continue reading…
At the center of everything is Brady Blackburn (Brady Jandreau), who’s slowly — and very reluctantly — coming to terms with what his recent head injury means for his life. Not only can he no longer participate in daring rodeo stunts, but he can’t even ride or train his beloved horses without risking potentially fatal consequences. If it wasn’t for his gruff but loving father, Tim (Brady’s real-life dad, Wayne Jandreau), and spirited sister, Lilly (real-life sister Lilly Jandreau), who has Asperger’s Syndrome, Brady might throw caution to the wind rather than give up his passion. But because of them — and because he’s seen the tragic impact of injury on his paralyzed friend, Lane (Lane Scott) — Brady searches for a new way forward.
Zhao met the Jandreau family and their friends and neighbors in 2013, while making her first film, Songs My Brothers Taught Me. She became fascinated by Brady and his story — which strongly parallels the events in the movie — and decided to center The Rider on him. Knowing how close to home the plot is for all of the players makes the film all the more powerful; these aren’t seasoned actors pretending to be cowboys — these are the real deal, men (and a few women) whose whole lives revolve around horses and the land.
The latter is essentially a co-star here; the movie’s gorgeous cinematography will make you yearn to gallop across the Badlands with Brady and his friends. That, combined with Zhao’s sensitive direction and spare script and the actors’ down-to-earth performances, make The Rider a compelling drama about what it means to be a man in a world that doesn’t offer men all that many options. — Betsy Bozdech
Team #MOTW’s comments:
Susan Wloszczyna: The American mythos of the cowboy hovers over The Rider like the full white moon that punctuates the painterly expanses of glowy dusk-time skies and pitch-black darkness that hover over the tree-less prairies of Badlands, South Dakota . Such natural wonders add a majesty to director, writer and producer Chloe Zhao’s portrait of a reedy young rodeo rider with an innocent face of a choir boy who is told that his competitive days are over after a fall from a horse causes a massive gash to his skull. What elevates this sympathetic tale into a reverie beyond simply repurposing one’s manly identity in a culture that has been defined by never-say-die images of John Wayne and Clint Eastwood? The story is actually based on actor Brady Jandreau’s own life and the injury that ended his career. Not only does he play the character of Brady, but his tough but understanding father plays his dad, his mentally disabled sister is his sibling and his paraplegic riding pal Lane Scott acts as his best friend. Zhao avoids any sense of docu-drama gimmickry and instead trains her camera on the poetic essence of Brady’s damaged spirit and his struggles with redefining himself. The moments that most prove to be pure gold are whenever Brady works his magic as a trainer of difficult steeds, especially a majestic stallion named Apollo. At one point, horse and man put their foreheads together before having to say goodbye and I became a wreck. When it comes to horse whispering, Robert Redford has nothing on Brady Jandreau.
Nikki Baughan: Bringing sensitivity and compassion to a decidedly masculine landscape, director Chloe Zhao’s second film, following 2015’s Songs My Brothers Taught Me, reshapes the traditional cowboy narrative in a way that both honours the traditions of the Western and brings it bang up to date. Working with real-life cowboy Brady Jandreau (here playing Brady Blackburn), who suffered a life-changing injury in a rodeo accident, Zhao has crafted a story that walks the line between fact and fiction to pack a powerful emotional punch. As Brady, who can no longer ride, attempts to adjust to a new way of life in the South Dakota Badlands, his family and friends (played by their real-life counterparts) are both a source of support and a constant reminder of everything he’s lost. Boasting terrific performances and evocative cinematography, The Rider is a triumph of human endeavour and tenacity of spirit.
Marilyn Ferdinand: Most Americans think they know what a cowboy is, but the truth is that it’s easier to believe the myth we’ve been spoonfed from movies, TV, and books than to embrace the reality of life on the range, especially on Native American lands where cowboys and rodeo are a way of life. It is therefore fortunate that Chinese producer/director Chloé Zhao has so far concentrated her considerable talents on telling the true story of America’s heartland through her carefully observed, respectful films. She returns to South Dakota’s Pine Ridge Indian Reservation where she shot her first feature film, SONGS MY BROTHERS TAUGHT ME (2015), to tell the slightly fictionalized story of one of the cowboys she met on that first shoot, Brady Jandreau, a rodeo champion who suffered a career-ending injury while Zhao was contemplating what kind of story to tell. Jandreau, a first-time actor living on the res like the rest of the cast of THE RIDER, lets us into his feelings and thoughts as he works with his horses, shares his bond with his fellow cowboys, and tries to come to terms with the end of his particular way of life as a bronc rider. The moving, visually stunning film is a tribute to the people who live this beautiful, sometimes harsh way of life and wouldn’t have it any other way.
Kristen Page Kirby: Those who are all hat and no cattle are the only cowboys who talk a lot; those with a more even hat-to-cattle ratio tend to be quiet. That’s why it makes sense that The Rider and star Brady Jandreau are always subdued and often silent. That doesn’t mean there’s not a lot going on — Jandreau’s sad-eyed, seemingly placid face communicates the internal struggle of a man whose current life is incompatible with the one he lived and whose future has become something he doesn’t necessarily want. At its core, The Rider is a unique, deeply moving look at a prototypical kind of masculinity defined by two rules: “shake it off” and “what are you, some kind of sissy?” Writer and director Chloe Zhao neatly rejects the insipid trap of the “inspirational” movie, trading in a swelling soundtrack (in fact, the film has almost no music at all) and a neat arc for something that echoes and resonates much more profoundly — asking whether one man can find a new place underneath the sweeping South Dakota sky.
MaryAnn Johanson It’s difficult to believed that *The Rider* is only Chloé Zhao’s second feature. This is such a beautiful, and beautifully accomplished film that it feels like it must be the work of a more mature and experienced artist. Her outsider’s eye on America, and on American ideas of masculinity, is a wise, sharp, and welcome one.
Anne Brodie: The Rider is one of the most powerful, hypnotic films I’ve seen, and that’s saying a lot as I gravitate towards meditative tales set in the natural world. Chloe Zhao follows an indigenous cowboy, Brady Jandreau playing himself, as he goes through a season in the Badlands of Pine Ridge, South Dakota. He lives in poverty, dedicated to his horse and those he trains in the area. Zhao documents a profound and unforgettable moment in real time as Jandreau breaks a wild horse by creating a bond that has its precedent millennia ago and here it is, played out before us. It is enchanting, primeval and provocative. But the starting point for the film is the concussion Jandreau suffered falling from a horse and the way it affects him. He seems reluctant to talk about it for fear of being perceived as damaged in the world of rodeo cowboys, so he deals with it alone. It’s a tough world he inhabits but we see inside his soul to the love and vulnerability inside. Zhao’s precision and intuition help make this the stunning work that celebrates Jandreau and a way of life that defined the country in so many ways.
Jennifer Merin The Rider is a contemporary cowboy drama written, directed and co-produced by Chloe Zhao, whose innovative approach to filmmaking creates the aura of authenticity and whose sensitive handling of its theme included casting a family of non-actors — Brady Jandreau, Tim Jandreau and Lily Jandreau – as her three principal characters in a narrative that embraces elements of their real lives. The film’s plot revolves around a young horse trainer (Brady Jandreau) whose stellar rodeo career as a bronco buster is suddenly upended by a near fatal accident that prevents him from reentering the arena of competitive riding and forces him to find a new source of income and self-esteem. Stunning in its truthful simplicity and cinematic splendor, Zhao’s film is a modern cowboy masterpiece.
Title: The Rider
Directors: Chloe Zhao
Release Date: April 13, 2018
Running Time: 104 minutes
Screenwriter: Chloe Zhao
Distribution Company: Sony Classics Pictures
AWFJ Movie of the Week Panel Members: Sandie Angulo Chen, Nikki Baughan, Anne Brodie, Betsy Bozdech, Marilyn Ferinand, Cynthia Fuchs, Pam Grady, Esther Iverem, MaryAnn Johanson, Cate Marquis, Jennifer Merin, Nell Minow, Kristen Page-Kirby, Moira Sullivan, Susan Wloszczyna, Jeanne Wolf
Edited by Jennifer Merin