Originally posted here.
Director Chloé Zhao was filming her first feature, Songs My Brothers Taught Me (2015), on the Pine Ridge Sioux reservation in South Dakota when she met Brady Jandreau. He was a promising bronco rider, until he was bucked off his horse during a rodeo; he was severely injured, requiring surgery to insert a metal plate into his skull. She returned to the area during Jandreau’s recovery, and suggested that they make a lightly-fictionalised version of his own life story. The result is The Rider, in which Jandreau (under the name of Brady Blackburn), his family and friends all play versions of themselves, tracking his convalescence, and his undying desire to get back up on the horse, despite the danger to his health.
Jandreau’s performance is a remarkable act of self-analysis, but it also makes the film painful, and not only slightly bracing to watch. When Brady speaks of his yearning to return to the rodeo, and how his body is denying him this, his life’s major and motivating pleasure, he likens himself to a wounded animal who has outlived his utilitarian purpose. He is not usually a demonstrative character; his face remains mostly unweathered by his interior feelings, but Zhao’s direction has a clever way to bring out the emotions beneath his stoical surface.
Everything about this set-up is unfashionable: Brady’s clothes, his predilection for spitting, his thoughtfulness, his manners. But it’s the rodeo itself that must be foremost among these. The use of a distressed horse as a tool is obviously exploitative, but there’s another side to Brady’s sport that the film takes its time to establish the importance of, and it serves as a metaphor for the movie itself. Zhao stages a number of scenes in which Brady trains a new horse. These play out in long takes, which don’t seem to stop until he’s won the horse’s trust. It’s patient, gentle, tender work; reacting to the animal’s instincts, learning exactly when to try a new manoeuvre, intuiting the right second to offer a hand or to step back: these decisions are crucial, but they are delicate. And this is how the film is with Brady; it tactfully approaches certain aspects of his life with a brilliant discernment: his relationship with his family, his fellow bronco riders, his landscape, and his horses.
Those last two, his landscape and his horses, are where the cinematography comes into focus. It’s not a particularly difficult task to make the lands of South Dakota beautiful on screen, but Zhao and cinematographer Joshua James Richards (the man who lensed Francis Lee’s God’s Own Country) have an aesthetic sense that does far more than just prettify the landscape. The shots of the earth are a reminder to Brady of his disconnection from a world he knows and loves. The Rider is a movie about rediscovering that lost connection, and, much like the act of riding itself, encompasses the fall as much as it does the lift up again.