Much of the power within Chloé Zhao’s sophomore feature, which sees her return to Songs My Brothers Taught Me’s Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, evolves from the Chinese-American director’s exquisite blending of drama with documentary. Honest and engaged performances are teased from non-actors with real investment in the story to achieve remarkable stoicism.
The Rider sees Zhao explore the construct of masculinity that linchpins the figure of the cowboy, both in reality and cinematic history. It is an identity tinged with romantic individualism, heroism and rugged virility, one epitomised by the likes of John Wayne, Clint Eastwood and Charles Bronson, and set against the backdrop of an onomatopoeically intense West. At the film’s heart is the tale of a rodeo who cannot bring himself to accept his physical limitations after a near-fatal equine accident derails his life and career.
Brady Jandreau plays a fictionalised iteration of himself in the film, which also features his real father and sister, with the family surname switched to Blackburn. It is a close to the bone plot that sees the trio recreate an approximation of Brady’s own trauma and recovery, following a like-for-like incident – Jandreau was himself thrown from a horse in 2016.
Following similar conceits in The 15:17 to Paris and American Animals, Zhao’s employment of non-actors in her film allows its drama to take on the aura of an artful documentary. Many scenes in the film see Zhao allow her characters to speak with the voices of their own experience; her directorial skill, however, never loses sight of dramatic beats. A campfire sequence mid-way through the film offers absorbing personal insight – ‘I mean, by NFL standards I should be dead’ – but boasts too gorgeous cinematography and a wider ear for pathos. Zhao’s precise choreography and framing here are enough to help capture Jandreau’s reactions as though he were a seasoned pro.
Jandreau may not be a professional actor but The Rider is keen to showcase his exhibitionist skill, therein demonstrating all that he stands to lose in the wake of his accident. Watching his modern-day cowboy break a lively foal, via what is best described as a hypnotic haka, is both enthralling and frightening. A clear inference in the film is suggestion that Brady is more comfortable in the company of horses than humans. Not that there is all that much dialogue available for comparison; in the manner of God’s Own Country, nature’s is the strongest voice here.
Brady’s human interactions are almost entirely male in the film, save for his delightful sister Lilly, with most involving fellow rodeos. A strained relationship with his father, Tim, is a touch underdeveloped. It is, thus, masculinity which ripples through the action, laid bare by Zhao as both in crisis and evolution, though left to unfold at a thoughtful pace. There is a tenderness among this group of men, particularly in regard to their paralysed friend Lane Scott, that belies their use of the refrain: ‘cowboy up!’ An instance that sets Lane’s present, speechless status side by side with his confident rodeo heyday is heartbreaking.
For all her immense skill in crafting this compelling, perhaps even authentic, film, Zhao demonstrates no rush to draw conclusions within its run-time. Symbols and metaphors may be found throughout the vast landscape of the film but these seem to be almost optional readings. That The Rider appears so effortlessly gentle is a hugely impressive achievement.