When every rodeo might be your last in the saddle
Subtle, elemental and powerfully beautiful, writer-director Chloe Zhao’s “The Rider” is the Western of the new century, and the most enveloping film experience I’ve had this year.
Even a hack director could make something of the southwestern South Dakota landscapes near Wounded Knee, lined by the Badlands, and foregrounded by the people who live, work, ride and risk their lives there. But with this, the second feature written and directed by Beijing-born and American-educated Zhao, we have ample evidence of a filmmaker whose storytelling instincts combine the prose of documentary with the poetry of a cinematic natural.
The same can be said of the main character as portrayed, close to the bone and to his own experience, by a real-life Lakota cowboy named Brady Jandreau. Now 22, he is everything “The Rider” needs. He’s an authentic presence, with trace elements of Christian Bale and Heath Ledger around the eyes, utterly at home in every shot, whether it’s in the confines of a trailer or a hospital bed, in tight closeup, or outside under the sky, with the animals with whom he’s almost supernaturally in sync.
A critic risks mythologizing a newcomer or a film with such descriptions. Happily, Zhao has a sharp sense of when, and how, to hit the brakes on the wrong, corny kind of rugged individualism.
We first see Brady Blackburn, Jandreau’s lightly fictionalized version of himself, in bed, waking with a start after dreaming of horses. A behind-theback traveling shot, after MPAA rating: R (for language and drug use) Running time: 1:44 Opens: Friday he gets up, reveals a head bandage. We see a horrifying row of staples once he removes the bandage; the staples are holding a deep gash in his skull together.
He has suffered a severe head injury getting thrown off a bronco at a rodeo. His recovery is an uncertain question mark. His rope hand is crippled. With his rodeo buddies, early in the picture, Brady sits around a campfire surrounded by darkness. “By NFL standards,” one says, referring to his “10-plus concussions … I should be dead.”
Brady lives with his father, a taciturn denizen of bars and casino poker stools, and his 15-year-old sister, a vibrant spirit living with Asperger’s syndrome. They’re played by Jandreau’s real-life father and sister; Brady’s friends are played by his real friends. “The Rider” belongs in the Badlands between fiction and nonfiction, and Zhao knows her way around. The movie seems to be happening naturally, even when the individual shots composed so effortlessly by Zhao and her cinemato- grapher Joshua James Richards cast a forlorn spell.
When “The Rider” takes the time to show Brady in his element, training wild horses, the movie captures brilliantly just how hard it’ll be for him to leave the horses behind. Coaching his friend, using a makeshift mechanical contraption, Brady mutters: “Ride it like it’s gonna be the last horse you’ll ever get on.” The line comes and goes before we know it, yet it’s a statement of character that feels heartbreakingly true.
Brady’s life’s work may kill him; a life without it may kill him more slowly. Zhao got to know the Lakota Sioux and the Indian cowboys on her previous feature, “Songs My Brothers Taught Me.” She met Jandreau, a member of the Lower Brule Sioux Tribe, in 2015. She realized this man, this face, this life deserves a film. And her film deserves your time and attention, not because it’s “worthy,” not even because it takes you to a striking part of America and American myth you may not know, but because it’s just plain excellent. Michael Phillips is a Tribune critic.
Brady Jandreau plays a cowboy trying to cope with a rodeo injury in “The Rider,” from filmmaker Chloe Zhao.