I watched this film as part of the lineup for this year’s San Francisco International Film Festival. It was followed by a Q&A with the director Chloé Zhao and star/subject Brady Jandreau.
I can hardly believe that it has been a year and a half since I discovered Chloé Zhao’s achingly beautiful directorial debut, Songs My Brothers Taught Me. So much of the imagery had remained firmly stuck in my memory, from the sprawling landscapes of the Badlands plains, to the more painful depictions of poverty and addiction on the reservation. It gives me great pleasure, moreover, to state that her second film, The Rider, has graciously provided a plethora of even more images and moments with which to fill my memory bank, to the point of overflow.
What partially makes the The Rider so special is that is a fictionalized docudrama of sorts, filmed in the same sort of vérité style that made her previous film seem so real and true-to-life, despite it obviously relying on a script. As Lakota cowboy Brady Jandreau describes it, the narrative is about 60% fictionalized, though its easy to detect the genuine nature of the people up on the screen and the relationships Brady forms with them. Practically every character on display here is marked by some form of struggle or tragedy, and within the first few shots of the film, we get a glimpse at Brady’s story. After waking up from an ambiguous dream of a horse, he approaches his bathroom mirror and carefully removes a large bandage from his head, exposing a large healed gash on his head, sealed with staples. What haunts Brady makes up the conflict for the remainder of the film: a much needed return to his upcoming career in the rodeo circuit, for which has attained a positive reputation, could result in his death if another head injury were to occur.
Jandreau’s Q&A description of his real-life head injury sounds absolutely ghastly, and he makes these uneasy stakes absolutely clear through his performance. To be frank, Jandreau’s presence is the driving force of this entire film. He is no actor, this being his very first film performance, but the close proximity with which this conflict reaches him comes off in his incredibly natural presentation. We see that he is charismatic, funny, empathetic, and supremely talented at training horses (the scenes of him interacting with horses are some of the most compelling). Yet in many others, especially in those where he is alone, we see that he is deeply troubled by how he could go on living knowing that riding could very possibly not be in his future.
Much like Songs My Brothers Taught Me, Zhao chooses to mark the organic pacing of the script with a sprawling series of images integral to the South Dakota environment. Endless mountainsides lit by sunsets, high-energy rodeos with country music pumping in the background, acoustic guitars played by campfire in the deep, dark nighttime – these are just a selection of environments strewn throughout the story of The Rider. Although Zhao is Chinese, she mentioned in the Q&A that she had spent four years living on a reservation, which more than explains her magnificent attention to detail and delicate respect for the community and culture that so defines both of her films. Although there is much less of the overt poverty that seemed to define Songs, it’s also clear that the living conditions of most here aren’t the most comfortable, making the stakes for Brady’s success all the more palpable.
Branching away from his own internal struggle, Brady’s relationship with his father Wayne and his younger sister Lilly (played by his real-life father and sister) further build upon the dimensions of his character. Wayne’s tough love toward his son, defined by consistent scoldings and put-downs of his character, surely explain the harshness with which Brady acts upon himself for the sake of coming out on top. More than a couple times through the film, Brady defies the expectations and advice of others by choosing to engage in horseback-riding, knowing very well how dangerous this is. This stubborn nature is, undoubtedly, a trait he picked up form his father. Additionally, some of the more energetic interactions come between Brady and Lilly, who is autistic. He is supremely loving and protective of her, shown explicitly in a scene where his engages in a brawl with an older man who tries approaching her in a bar. Lilly also possesses a defined sense of humor, seen in a wonderfully understated scene wherein her father buys her a bra, after her explicit refusal to wear one. Later in her room, she cuts apart this bra with scissors.
Though the events of The Rider don’t take on a typical three-act structure, they are nonetheless marked by their own type of tragedy. Since Brady cannot ride, he must take on a menial job at a grocery store to make ends meet. Later, his father decides to sell his beloved horse. Then, he is hospitalized after a seizure leaves him unconscious, after which he is told never to ride again. Nonetheless, he gets a new horse, but after the horse runs away and severely injures his leg, he must get put down. The narrative is defined by a series of unexpected punches set to bring Brady down, though still he persists.
As I mentioned before, everyone in The Rider must come to grips with their own form of struggle. This is no more concretized than with the presence of Lane Scott, Brady’s friend who, after an unspecified accident, has become severely paralyzed and unable to speak. Jandreau stated that his Lane’s condition was caused by a car accident that left his brain deprived of oxygen for over two hours. Given that was an accomplished rider prior to his accident, both he and Brady share the similar plight of being unable to perform their cowboy dream due to physical forces beyond their control. These scenes between the two are some of the most emotionally resonant of the whole film. Essentially, it is through these moments where the energetic love for life and friendship shines through, despite the hardships that life may bring their way.
On a more personal note, I was incredibly affected by a short scene in a doctor’s office, wherein a neurologist diagnoses Brady with being afflicted by partial complex seizures. There are numerous moments leading up to this where Brady randomly experiences a sudden tensing of his right hand, so much so that he must physically pry his fingers apart so that they aren’t balled into fists. This scene was meant to explain the cause of this for audiences (in short, his affliction is caused by his brain injury), but I found it totally validating for my own experience with epilepsy. I experience simple partial seizures which mostly affect my vision, and it’s always been difficult for myself to not only describe my experiences, but also how it technically classifies as epilepsy even though I am fully conscious as my seizures occur. Although grand mal seizures are definitely undergone by many with epilepsy, it doesn’t nearly cover the whole scope of the disability. The courage and transparency which which Jandreau exposes his own experience with the affliction is inspiring and a huge step forward in representation of a wider scope of seizures in film.
And while I may not know what it’s like to be a cowboy whose decision to get atop a horse suddenly becomes a straddle between life and death, I do know how hard it is to be told I can’t do something I desire to do for fear of my own safety. To be fair, I think most people could claim to encounter this particular phenomenon to some degree at least once in their lives, and thus lies the human experience laid so bare within the context of The Rider. It’s a beautiful film, so thoroughly defined by the constant struggle of its subject and the cultural context within it lies. I couldn’t be any more fortunate to have this particular film kick off my festival experience this year.