When we first encounter Brady Blackburn in The Rider, he’s regarding himself in the harsh florescent-green light of a grimy bathroom, examining the half-moon gash that runs across the side of his head. He picks at the staples holding it together like safety pins on an old pair of jeans, but he doesn’t wince at the pain; as a rodeo cowboy, gnarly lacerations and the occasional broken bone come with the territory, comparable to the callouses that develop around the tip of a seamstress’ index finger. Yet the image of Brady looking in the mirror recalls Jake La Motta at the end of Raging Bull: Who is this broken person staring back at him? And if he can’t identify himself as an athlete anymore, what kind of man has he become?
Like Raging Bull, The Rider is a story of masculinity in crisis, but Brady is a much gentler spirit, less inclined to be subsumed by his own anger and self-loathing. And he’s made all the more human for being played by Brady Jandreau, a real-life cowboy whose own misfortune on the rodeo circuit feeds into the drama. Writer-director Chloe Zhao discovered Jandreau when she was shooting her 2015 debut feature, Songs My Brothers Taught Me, about Lakota Sioux siblings growing up on South Dakota’s Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. When Jandreau, a horse trainer and rodeo star, suffered a near-fatal injury that left him with a steel plate in his head and a stern warning never to compete again, Zhao had her story. But it’s how she tells that set The Rider apart.
Straddling the border between truth and fiction like Jandreau on a bucking bronco, Zhao doesn’t care to point out the places where her scenario does or does not intersect with his life. Brady Blackburn is an extension of Brady Jandreau, but Zhao frees herself to embellish around it, so long as the film maintains a dramatic authenticity. This holds true across a cast of non-professional actors playing versions of themselves, including Brady’s gruff father Tim and his sister Lilly, who’s afflicted with Asperger’s. The supporting cast also expands out into a cadre of friends from the circuit, most touchingly Lane Scott, a once-dominant rider left paralyzed and speechless from an accident of his own. (The real Scott sustained his injuries in a car accident, but the film attributes them to a bronco’s heel, which is one example of Zhao taking advantage of her creative license.)
After doctors advise the 20-year-old Brady never to ride again, it’s a practical and existential crisis. He was never going to make a fortune in the rodeo — in fact, he’d likely lose in the health care costs what he gained in winnings — but the dream defined him and gave him stature in a part of the country where the American cowboy hasn’t been rendered extinct. In the immediate aftermath, he scrapes together some money bagging groceries and stocking shelves at a local supermarket, and manages the stresses back home, where he scraps with his temperamental father and takes solace from his sister’s cheery demeanor. His talent for breaking wild horses offers a path forward, but his old life calls him, too, and he considers risking death for a chance to compete again.
The Rider sounds like a thesis paper in the making, given how much it trades in archetypes about old-school American masculinity and the threats posed by the modern world. Any story that takes places on a reservation naturally suggests an entire way of life penned into narrow borders after centuries of wide-open expanse. Yet the word that best describes the film is “tender”: Zhao’s focus isn’t the violence and rage of a damaged man, but his decency and resilience under devastating circumstances. Fate has dealt Brady a bum hand, but The Rider is about the process of seeing him play those cards the best he can.
The gorgeous cinematography, by Joshua James Richards, is a reminder of the rough-hewn beauty that still defines that swath of the country, and it supports the rugged optimism that courses through the film. That spirit is embodied by Landreau, whose life experience informs his performance in a way that wouldn’t be possible for even the most devoted Method actor. Zhao keeps the drama within his range—as a cowboy, his natural reserve dictates a narrow emotional register — but Landreau’s obvious affection for his family and friends cannot be faked when he’s acting beside them. At times, it’s easy to forget that The Rider isn’t a documentary, because to a certain extent it is: Landreau’s unpracticed banter with the people in his life is real, as are sequences where he plays horse whisperer to unbroken animals. It doesn’t matter what’s real and not real in The Rider. What matters is that it’s true.