Written and Directed by: Chloe Zhao
What constitutes a modern western? One answer is that it’s a film that involves a hero who rides into town, miraculously solves a problem and swoops out, but is not set in the old west. That’s one answer. But Chloe Zhao’s The Rider get’s at what’s perhaps truly most striking about Westerns: not their structures, but their blatant content: wide open plains, with cowboys and horses bursting through them.
The Rider’s protagonist, Brady Blackburn (Brady Jandreau) is an avid rodeo participant and horse trainer. He has recently suffered a major head injury: an injury that seemingly means he will never rodeo again. Temporarily unable to do his job Brady is left to find work at a grocery store and wilt under the judgmental gaze of his father (Tim Jandreau). The film follows his recovery, and the dreams and responsibilities he takes on along the way. It is a simple story, one that works within the confines of realism. It has a plot arc, but barely.
The Rider thus tells us what it means to be a real life, modern cowboy. It does not make the cowboy a metaphor for some “realistic” kind of adventurism, and heroism. Rather, it depicts a person with real cowboy dreams in his struggle to live those dreams within the trenches of reality. One way it does this is through depicting Brady’s affectionate relationships with his horses. The camera zooms in on them, and we the see the expression in their eyes. This in turn leads to another of the film’s themes: the relationship between man and horse. Horses can ultimately be treated as a commodity: they can, for instance, be sold when one’s family is in trouble.
Brady appears to differ from his father in that he cares for the individual horses. In Brady’s eyes, his father’s lack of care for the horses is inseparable from his lack of care for his son. The complex truth that the film exposes, however, is that this is not the case. Brady’s father’s love for him is never in doubt, even as he makes it frustratingly difficult for Brady to see tgat.
This different viewpoint on the equality of horse and man becomes important later in the film. Brady argues that both horse and rider have a purpose: and when a rider cannot ride, he has lost this purpose. This in turn raises another theme: the idea of purposelessness, of giving up. When a character falls to these depths, it can make for a gripping narrative element, but it can also feel forced. Life has much to offer and even in states of great pain and misery, people can find new ways to live it. Zhao’s decision to have Brady simply ponder giving up is thus cleverly nuanced. She successfully shows an overwhelming, personal, psychological drama, while acknowledging that such dramas need not become all-consuming or define a person’s life.
The Rider is based on a true story: Zhao says it straddles the line between documentary and fiction. Brady Jandreau is a real life, incapacitated former rodeo star. I discovered this while watching the film’s credits. In some ways it was a frustrating discovery. Could the film have the thematic depth I thought it did if it simply portrayed real life (granted, Brady Blackburn is not an exact recreation of Jandreau)? Perhaps you too will be struck by this feeling, but remember it is not necessary. Just because The Rider is based in truth does not take away the fact that it is a narrative: a narrative an author could have built from scratch. Furthermore, its basis in reality reinforces its educational character.
The Rider is a work that, unless your grew up with Lakota Rodeo culture, will show you a world you don’t know. It is sad, but not insurmountably so. It is simple, but engaging and therefore a work many should find enjoyable