The Rider: Art Imitates Life Imitating Art in Brilliant, Luminous New Drama

By Liam Lacey

Rating: A

Is it too soon to be talking about the best films of 2018? The year isn’t half over but The Rider — a quietly luminous American independent film that has been on the critical radar since it screened at Cannes in 2017 — seems sure to end up a lot of top 10 lists.

Set in the badlands of South Dakota, The Rider follows a rodeo rider, Brady Blackburn (Brady Jandreau), of the Sioux Lakota Indian tribe, who suffers a head injury in competition.  Slow, soulful, and beautifully nuanced, the film follows Brady’s struggle to get his brain, body, and spirit back in working order.  

Critics have noted many elements are adapted from the traditional Western: beautiful horses, masculine stoicism and big skies and landscapes. Special mention must go Joshua James Richards’ cinematography of those big sky and sunsets, communicating the natural beauty that surrounds Brady and his community.

 A scene from The Rider.

A scene from The Rider.

The story behind the film's creation is as fascinating as the film itself. The film uses a non-professional cast, including protagonist Jandreau, a bronco rider who suffered the same injury. In the film, he lives with his father, a hard-drinking widower (Tim Jandreau) and his mentally delayed sister (Lilly Jandreau). All the characters are played by real-life friends and family members. Real footage of Brady’s real rodeo accident, for example, is used in the film.

Other details are changed: In the film, Brady has a friend who was left paraplegic and unable to speak from another rodeo accident, though, in reality, the friend was hurt in a car crash. Another indication of the docu-drama hybrid is the way the story moves forward, not in a traditional arc but in a series of emotional eddies.

The Rider is directed and written by an Asian woman, Chloe Zhao, who travelled half-way around the world to discover the people and landscape that have become close to her heart. Zhao, 35, was born Zhao Ting in Beijing. A rebellious kid, she was sent away to boarding school for high school, first in London, England, and subsequently in Los Angeles. She studied political science at Mount Holyoke College, the upscale Massachusetts women’s school, before moving to New York, where she did a number of odd jobs (bartending, real estate) before applying to study film at New York University’s Tisch College. Since her teens, she had been a big fan of Hong Kong filmmaker Wong Kar-Wai, especially his lyrical South American love story, Happy Together.

After graduation, Zhao read an article about an epidemic of teen suicides on a Lakota native reservation near Pine Ridge, Wyoming, and decided to go and meet the young people of the community. Over months, and in excess of 30 drafts, she created a script about a rebellious Lakota Sioux teenager and his sister. The film was made with a non-professional cast, created her first feature film, Songs My Brothers Taught Me, which had its premiere at Sundance in 2015 and was nominated as a best first feature at the Independent Spirit Awards.

While working on that film, Zhao met Brady Jandreau, a 20-year-old Sioux rodeo rider, with a gentle handsome face. She wanted to make a film about him but didn’t have a story. Then, two years ago, he had the accident, where a bronco threw and trampled him, splitting open his skull. Brady was told to give up riding or risk dying but he gradually slipped back into training horses. Zhao, struck by the story of someone who would risk his life for the work that he loved, built her script around that.

Unlike her first feature, where she kept rewriting on the fly, Zhao was careful to create a script early and stick to it. Her star, who appeared at Toronto International Film Festival premiere last September, assured the audience he was acting in the part, comparing Zhao to a gifted horse trainer for humans.

On the subject of accidents, I had a mishap of my own. I interviewed Zhao at TIFF, but subsequently discovered the sound file was corrupted and unusable.  She had an unshakeable confidence about her style of intimate, observational filmmaking. (A former film professor, quoted in a Vogue profile, describes her as having a “a very warm heart but an extremely cold eye.”) Inoculated against ideology by her Beijing childhood, she was impatient with putting people in boxes of ethnicity, culture or gender.

Was it difficult to make the film as an outsider? No, she said. She spent enough time in the community to convince people of her sincere intentions, and physically, she almost passed as Native American.

“I put my hair in a braid and I look as though I belong.” She says the locals referred to her as the Lakota girl with the Chinese name.

Whatever film reviewers might wish, she says The Rider is really not a western, a genre she says she’s barely familiar with. It’s a film about people today, while she recognizes that there be some cultural whiplash about cowboys who are also Indians.  

And that Western masculine code stuff? I asked if it were challenging for a young woman outsider, giving instructions to tough traditional men, specifically Tom Jandreau, who plays Brady’s intimidating father.

 The stereotypes about masculine and feminine are too simplistic, she said.

“Tom was a big softy. You see these men working with the horses and they’re as gentle as can be.”

This month, Amazon Studios announced that Zhao will direct and write the screenplay for a real western, a biography of Bass Reeves, the first black U.S. deputy marshal. Be prepared to saddle up and expect the unexpected.

The Rider. Written and directed by Chloé Zhao. Starring Brady Jandreau, Tim Jandreau, Lilly Jandreau, Lane Scott, Cat Clifford. Now playing in Vancouver and at Toronto’s TIFF Bell Lightbox. The film opens May 4 in Montreal and throughout the spring in other cities.