Director: Chloé Zhao
15 | 1h 44min | Drama, Western| 14 September 2018 (UK)
With her sophomore feature The Rider, director Chloé Zhao’s confidently dissects that most masculine of occupations - the hard-riding cowboy - with intelligence and empathy, acknowledging the elemental appeal of the lifestyle whilst probing at the physical and mental cost. The film joins the tradition of social realist dramas that blur the lines between documentary and fiction whilst burnishing their own authentic credentials, by casting non-professional actors to play certain versions of themselves. Yet, courtesy of some stunning Dakota plains vistas given their majestic due by Joshua James Richards’s cinematography, Zhao’s film also allows itself to sometimes let the myth ride into view.
The quiet heart of the story is South Dakota rodeo star Brady Blackburn (played by real-life rider and non-professional actor Brady Jandreau, who turns in an impressive performance), a young man who literally dreams about horses. The first shot of the film - a magnificent horse quivering in extreme close-up - turns out to be just one of Brady’s fevered dreams. Brady, as we soon learn, knowns nothing else but riding and training horses, coming from a part-Lakota family who have seemingly been into hard farm living for generations. But if horse are the dream, Brady’s pale and wiry body, exposed to us as he cringes his way out of bed and out into his beaten-up trailer bedroom, reveals the cost of living it. A horrific surgical scar, bolted up with giant staples, lies across one side of his head. His body is covered with old scars and bruises that sneak out between his tattoos. Brady has only recently awakened from a severe head injury, after a horse stamped on his skull. The doctors who fixed his brain and skull have told him, and will continue to tell him during numerous hospital trips that we see later, that he must give up the sport – one that is his passion but also his lifeline – for fear it may kill him. He has lingering neural damage that causes his hands to clench into rock hard fists. Nothing we see about rodeo riding later gives any other impression that injuries like these are the norm, not the exception.
Having economically introduced Brady, so that we know all about him and his life in about two minutes (the rider’s gear, the crummy trailer, the scars, the sound of horses outside, and the uncomplaining way he goes about wrapping his head up in clingfilm to shower) Zhao’s film effectively splits the difference between exploring the near-masochistic demands that rodeo riding and horse training puts upon a man like this (because all these riders are men out here) and the dismal prospects in this isolated part of the state that makes the feel of the wind in the hair, and the roar of the rodeo crowds, all the more appealing. The film is unsentimentally rich in the details of hardscrabble living. The land between Brady’s trailer (which also houses his mentally disabled sister and drunk farmer father) and his neighbours is dotted with junked cars, broken fences and even broker horses. Desperate transactions seem to be the order of the day to keep the lights on: with Brady forced to not only watch his favourite horse get traded in by his father to pay their four-month-in-arrears rent, but at one point he even drags his own prized saddle to the local pawn shop. The pawn shop cashier casually comments that he sees lot of cowboys trading in their spurs. Other work handed out by the job centre by sympathetic Lakotans consists only of supermarket work, and it must burn Brady to be caught stacking shelves by adoring fans who remember his rodeo star power, who interrupt him to ask for selfies with their icon. Brady’s older friends have started growing and selling weed to get by, with one calling it “salvation: this is gas, food, and horses”. Getting stoned is an evening ritual.
Contrasted against this is the raw excitement of mounting up on a horse or bull dressed all fancy, and winning credibility amongst your pals and maybe prize money on the circuit by keeping on top of a wildly-bucking animal long enough. Brady is addicted to flicking through old Youtube videos of his former triumphs, and still hangs out with his rodeo crew, who do little else but talk about riding. Even Brady’s severely-disabled best friend and former rodeo champion Lane, who he visits several times throughout the story, likes to indulge in reliving the glory days on his iPad, despite the assumption one might have that seeing himself in the prime of health would be a disturbing experience. It seems there is little to nothing else out there for these men, which helps contextualise their strangely muted approach to the reality of sever injury, even with Lane’s fate being a blow close to home. They talk about riding as if it is something that just has to be done, with death and injury something to pray for, to maybe be solemn over, but not something that can stop one’s destiny. They are almost like soldiers who know they have to go over the top, and I found myself thinking at times of how offering the military life to young people who have few other options could be seen as morally cloudy. Are there parallels here? Is this life really a choice? Is it worth it?
Zhao’s film makes you mull over all these questions, without ever condescending to suggest these men are somehow dumb or duped. Jandreau’s fully-immersed performance sells you on the passion that struggles with the desperation, pain and fear in this young man, whilst his real-life skills presumably are what gave him the ability and willingness to be penned up solo with several large and dangerously unruly horses, which makes for some truly tense ‘taming’ scenes. And when DP Joshua James Richards frames Brady, finally mounted up and looking released at long last, racing against a vast maintain range even as an epic storm brews in the vast skies above, we are asked to consider that maybe this, this one sublime moment, is worth it all. “Ride or die” isn’t just a corny catchphrase from The Fast and Furious series after all, it really means exactly that for some.