The cowboy is an iconic figure of the American mythos. Man and horse conquer the prairie, two beings, utterly free and united against the world. Chloé Zhao turns her attention to this quintessential figure in The Rider, spooling apart the intricacies of the masculinity beneath with tender care.
Our titular rider is young Brady Blackburn (Brady Jandreau), fresh off a rodeo accident and subsequent debilitating head injury. He grapples with his physical limitations, trying to be tough, trying to push through the pain. Brady’s home, after all, is on horseback: he says, speaking of both horses and of himself, “It’s not fair to them if they can’t do what they were born to do.”
Zhao captures the world around Brady in a sense of palpable awe, lingering on the painted sunsets and rippling seas of grass of South Dakota’s Badlands. Her depiction of the Lakota reservation Brady and his family call home is grounded in reality. She found her actors while filming her previous effort, Songs My Brothers Taught Me, and built her script around them – and around Jandreau’s real-life accident. His real-life companions fill out the cast: sister Lilly (Lilly Jandreau) is a source of light, all playfulness and melody, and close friend Lane (Lane Scott) is an unbreakable spirit. They provide the film with a natural richness, serving as Brady’s tethers to the world.
Jandreau carries the film in his haunted eyes, with cinematographer Joshua James Richards’s intimate lens lingering on his mournful gaze, on the way he gingerly handles a rope, on his natural ease with horses. Zhao portrays his painstaking return journey to the back of a horse with empathy rather than condemnation, understanding the desperation that comes with upholding a man’s pride, showing us Brady’s struggles without judgment.
The end result is nothing short of poetry, an ode of tragic beauty. As our concept of masculinity changes, so does our interpretation of the cowboy, that mythical stoic figure. Zhao imbues it with an undercurrent of gentleness, finding the bravery not in toughing it out, but in letting go.
The Rider is available to stream with a STARZ subscription and is available to purchase digitally on Amazon, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu, and YouTube and on DVD and Blu-ray from Sony Pictures Classics. Follow the film on Facebook.