Filmmaker Chloe Zhao vaults into a rarefied atmosphere of filmmaking mastery with her stunning second feature, “The Rider,” a neo-Western about rodeo riding, hobbled masculinity and reflective grace that feels unlike anything else out there.
Its compelling singularity no doubt has something to do with its milieu –Native American bronc and bull specialists on the rodeo circuit who hail from South Dakota’s Pine Ridge Reservation — but it primarily derives from Zhao’s filmmaking choice to combine a deeply felt story and a risky-but-rewarding vérité approach. The result is at times heart-stoppingly effective, pulling us so close to some of the movie’s key characters that they begin to feel like family.
We meet Brady Blackburn (Brady Jandreau) by way of the formidable stapling in his shaved head, a physical scar that forecasts the psychological journey ahead. A gifted young Lakota horse trainer, Brady had been an up-and-coming saddle bronc star until a horrible rodeo accident put him briefly in a coma, set him up with a metal plate, and incurred a doctor-ordered end to his riding days.
At home he endures watching his dad (Tim Jandreau), with whom he often clashes, sell Brady’s beloved horse Gus to pay debts. Brady also gets loving support from his autistic sister Lilly (Lilly Jandreau) and his rodeo pals. But he’s consumed by uselessness. Brady wants nothing more than to get back to training and riding, because his sense of incompleteness outside his life with horses is starting to feel like the worse injury. It’s a stubbornness doomed to embolden him, but what is he otherwise?
If you noticed that the actors’ last names are the same, it’s because Zhao is essentially telling Brady Jandreau’s story, starring Brady himself. After making her debut feature (“Songs My Brothers Taught Me”) at Pine Ridge, where she had ingratiated herself with the various tribes, Zhao got to know the laconic, horse-whispering Lakota cowboy before his accident, and witnessed his struggles afterward.
When she started putting together a version of Jandreau’s story as a film, Zhao made the decision to have everyone in Brady’s world play themselves. That included fellow professional rider Lane Scott, a rising star confined to a wheelchair after his own terrible accident, and visited onscreen in rehab by Brady. Their touching scenes eschew schmaltz for the more heart-tugging sensation of a lived-in camaraderie readjusted by tragedy.
Directors have used non-professionals since movies began, but what Zhao gets out of her 21-year-old real-life cowboy star — by turns stoically lost, humbled, loving, and defiant — is nothing short of miraculous. Jandreau’s is a true, camera-ready performance, filled with nuance, and it speaks to Zhao’s actor-whispering skills that it burns so brightly at the center of her film. Other movies have utilized non-actors to portray versions of themselves – one immediately thinks of Oscar winners Harold Russell and Haing S. Ngor – but they were intended to be elements in a larger, homogenized creation.
“The Rider” is fully Jandreau’s; it’s impossible to imagine it having the same impact without his committed, enveloping presence. He’s as powerful as any macho western protagonist stripped to the core — the gunfighter disarmed or the pioneer made homeless. That he’s Native American, pale-skinned but proud, only deepens the reconfiguring of this country’s myths that’s another undercurrent in “The Rider.”
“The Rider” also may be one of the best movies ever made about people and horses as a transcendent relationship. The documentary-infused scenes of Jandreau training and connecting with horses — the wild and ornery, the broken and fearful — are mesmerizing in their fluidity and intimacy, dramatizing a kind of tough love born of tradition and respect. Jandreau’s adoration of these animals is not only pulsating: it allows the horses to be flesh-and-blood co-stars in Brady’s story, not just four-legged accessories.
It’s all gorgeously photographed, too, by Joshua James Richards (“God’s Own Country”), who understands fully the magnetic power of a silhouetted horizon shot, a haunting landscape, or a close-up in a truck. And more importantly, that they all need to be seamlessly strung-together verses in the same evocative frontier poem.
The densely authentic space between neo-realism and documentary where “The Rider” exists is one of the most beautiful and affecting realms I’ve had the pleasure of visiting recently as a moviegoer. Having seen it twice — the first time unaware of its hybrid approach, the second time fully cognizant that I was watching real people in a form of healing re-enactment — the spell, I realized, was the same: a lyrical sense that life is lived and re-lived, acted out but ever retraced, and that to reclaim ourselves after a fall is perhaps what being human is all about. We live in identity-convulsive times, and I can’t think of a movie more attuned to the question “Who am I?” than this one.
Spiritual and earthy, forged in curiosity yet fortified with empathy, “The Rider” is why we go to the cinema, and it affirms Chloe Zhao as one of the most gifted new movie artists of our time.