Few movies are as immediately transfixing as Chloe Zhao’s The Rider. In another movie, its opening scene, which finds young rodeo star Brady Blackburn (Brady Jandreau) unwrapping his gauzed head to examine the jagged row of staples affixed to his scalp might serve as the emotional climax for the entire movie. Here, it’s used as an entry point, our window into one of the most poignant deconstructions of America and manhood that has been produced in years.
There’s pain in Brady’s eyes, try though he might to grit through it, to “cowboy up” and carry on, that underscores the thematics of the film beautifully. Maybe he isn’t fully aware of it just yet, but the suspicion that his burgeoning career is already over has begun seeping into his thoughts already. “What now,” his eyes seem to cry, even as his heart still has its mind set on getting back in the saddle.
That The Rider is, more or less, Jandreau’s real life story—Zhao met the young cowboy while researching her previous film, Songs My Brothers Taught Me, and wrote her next script for him after Jandreau himself suffered an accident like the one seen here—only adds to the poignancy of the overall work. Jandreau is not an actor, and sometimes it shows, but that only deepens the well of painful realism that drives the work and makes for a more stunning cinematic experience.
In fact, none of the actors featured in The Rider are professionals. Jandreau is joined by his real life father, Tim Jandreau, and sister, Lilly Jandreau, on top of a whole host of North Dakota cowboys to bring Zhao’s remarkable vision to life. This effect brings a taste of vérité to the world of the film that feels, at times, almost voyeuristic. It’s fiction, sure, but only in presentation. In a sense, we’re watching an actual dream die, and it’s as heartbreaking and uplifting as the saddest country song.
Brady, having previously been an on-the-rise potential rodeo star, is now stuck inside a life he never wanted. The injury that has sidelined him—seen only through grainy YouTube footage—threatens to leave him just debilitated enough to unsaddle his entire career. Over now before it began, he must find a way to move on with his life, grieve the closed door of his future, and do it all with the resolve of a cowboy, of, really, a man.
But what is manhood, really? What does one mean when one says “cowboy up”? Zhao expertly delves into these questions, exploring them with a detached objectivity that allows the themes to truly shine through. Her work here, and the beautiful cinematography of Joshua James Richards, is that of a poetic observer, relaying a real life heartbreak in terms that are accessible to those outside the purview of the story.
Ultimately, it is a story of humanity. Who among us hasn’t watched a dream die, whether slow or quick? Who among us hasn’t seen talent collapse under the weight of the cards that were dealt? Knowing that Jandreau is playing a version of himself adds considerable more heft to his role. No doubt Brady Jandreau would rather be on a horse himself, instead of starring in a movie loosely based on his life, the same as Brady Blackburn would rather not be working at the small town grocery store to sustain himself through the hard times.
The stunned acceptance on his face is all too familiar. Dreams never die outright, they whither slowly away, even when we’re all too cognizant that it’s happening. Even when there’s nothing we can do to reverse the process. What becomes of manhood when manhood is built around a single pillar that crumbles due to cruel twists of fate?
Zhao’s deft blend of reality and fiction creates a story that’s more effortlessly authentic than 99.999% of modern country music. She has channeled the spirits of Willie Nelson and Dwight Yoakum into a film of such raw power and emotional intensity that is instantly unforgettable. The Rider is a film you’ll definitely want to saddle up for.
The Rider is now playing in limited release.