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The Rider, Chloe Zhao‘s slow documentary-based feature, shows a fragile side of the rodeo cowboy.
The Rider, a thing of ravenous beauty, should not be mistaken as a film for the faint of heart. The opening minutes detail Brady Blackburn pulling staples out of his skull in the bathroom of his father’s mobile home. After he unfastens, with a jackknife, the white bandage covering the right half of his hairline, another dozen are found holding the gash together that evidently keeps his steel plate in place. He then cling-wraps his head and takes a shitty shower.
So goes the bronco-bucking life in a place where horses and endless prairie are people’s greatest, sometimes only assets. Shot on location in the Badlands of South Dakota, the film is a foray into the rich culture of an extremely poor community, where rodeoing is the lifestyle for nearly equal parts whites and Native Americans. At the center of it is the Blackburn family, whose single father Wayne ekes out a living flipping horse deals for a marginal profit, and leaves on Brady much of the daily responsibilities of caring for his sister Lilly, a fifteen-year-old with an unspecified mental handicap.
They are played part-for-part by the Jandreau family, and several other characters close to Brady play themselves without so much as a name-change. It’s a good thing too, because the bronco-riding that centers the film, and the dangers that accompany it, would be difficult to simulate.
Brady is the rider in question and has been making good money and a name for himself until a fall earns him the steel plate and catalyzes the film. He fully intends to bounce back, but soon finds that when on horseback his right hand will clench in a death grip, later diagnosed as partial complex seizures that will only deteriorate if he continues inducing the anxiety of riding.
Even in his denial, an action is taken; his father sells the horse and, despite his genuine love for Brady begins emasculating about the failure. Brady gets a job at a supermarket but is still a hero to the kids he sees there and deeply ingrained in the riding community. In applying for the job, we learn that he doesn’t have his high school GED or a resume – when asked about his list of skills he names only his talent for breaking mustangs. Before our eyes, his way of life becomes seemingly impossible.
Most characters in The Rider play themselves, and it’s a good thing too- the bronco-riding that centers the film, and the dangers that accompany it, would be difficult to simulate.
The logical response for Brady also seems the abstract subject of Zhao’s work: stubborn masculinity. Shot mostly during sunrise or dusk by Director of Photography Joshua James Richards, who in turning us at the mercy of the open sky, nearly every frame of the film is natural grandeur – but I still ended up more impressed with Zhao’s handling of her characters. Zhao, raised in England with a filmmaking degree from NYU, is able to get a side of Trump’s America most New Englanders has never seen before.
In Brady and his young friends, toughness and pride are kings – but the Cowboys aren’t afraid to shed tears, to tell each other “I love you,” to pray. Against their dated ways and lack of ability to change, there’s a definite tendency to kick out in anger. But Zhao brings grace to her movie by not allowing that to seem shallow or crude, by giving her characters more to live for than their ultimate validation. Cynically, the game of riding is a way for men to stroke their egos, but that’s not just why Brady doesn’t feel he can quit – he says it’s his God-given purpose in life.
Zhao brings grace to The Rider by not allowing stubborn masculinity to simply seem shallow or crude, by giving characters more to live for than their ultimate validation.
The price of this belief is revealed to us with Brady’s friend Lane Scott, played by himself, and mentioned early on by the young cowboys for his bull-riding prowess. Brady tells everyone his friend will ride again, and soon, but when he goes to visit Lane it’s clear at first sight this won’t happen. Lane is partially paralyzed, can’t speak, and his hand is often too shaky for cogent sign language. While he still manages to sign affectionately about Brady’s chances at recuperation, the actual consequences of this lifestyle are jarring. For a long time, Brady seems one bad ride away from getting himself in Lane’s place, and the film leaves open the question of what would prevent him from doing that. In a sport where the average cowboy is pretty roughed up “by NFL standards” going on until you can’t feel more natural than giving into a sense of uselessness. Late in the film, Brady has to put a lame horse down, and tells his sister, “Any animal that got hurt like I did would get put down.” The rider’s life is justified by the ride just as much as the horse’s is.
Zhao’s slow burn is “dedicated to all the riders who live their lives 8 seconds at a time.” Like the American West itself, it offers little direct sustenance and is unbridled by the traditional comforts one expects of a film. Even the ending is unexpected, a non-event that takes a while to let its possibilities sink in.
For Zhao, The Rider navigates what the American West once stood for to young men and debunks it. That dream cost the price of so many Native Americans, a whole species of buffalo, and ultimately themselves. In its place, there is the dormant, sensitive West that you can still find traces of in Outlaw Country lyrics – that of a man, and his horse, travelling home their family.
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