I’d gone into the theater knowing nothing of the Chloe Zhao’s The Rider except that my colleague Bilge Ebiri adored it — and that I’d get to to witness some breathtaking cinematography capturing the dusky pastels streaking the American West. (I did.) For the first 20 minutes, I was transfixed by the performance of newcomer Brady Jandreau, who plays Brady Blackburn, a rodeo rider who sustains a life-changing injury that requires a metal plate be melded to his skull. He’s told that if he rides again, he may not survive this time. His autistic sister Lilly (Lilly Jandreau) studies the incision scar on his head, and Brady explains, with great care and patience, what the doctors did for him. Later, Brady sits around a campfire, listening to a friend croon and strum an acoustic guitar. The men speak with admiration of their unseen pal Lane Scott, all convinced that he’ll get back on a horse soon. But when we actually meet Scott, who communicates with sign language using his one good hand and sometimes struggles to sit up straight in his wheelchair, something becomes very clear: These are not actors.
It’s difficult to describe the immense weight that descends upon you when you realize you’re seeing real Indian reservation cowboys moving through a lightly fictionalized version of their lives, finding hope and happiness where they can. That scar on Brady’s head is genuine. As a horse trainer, Brady works a kind of whispering magic over the confused and scared animals in his care. Watching this happen in real time — this man actually communicating with horses — is a singular experience. In one scene, Zhao captures it all with a camera that ducks and weaves round and through the metal posts of the pen, while a horse whinnies and kicks and Brady patiently waits for it to calm. It’s absolutely thrilling to see and probably more thrilling to be Brady, with all that power and confidence. But because of his injury, everything he loves about his life could be taken away.
Zhao has created one of the most nuanced and affectionate studies of American masculinity — past and present — that I’ve ever seen, through Brady and the men in his life. When the buddies drink beer around the fire, everyone serves Brady platitudes about how he’ll get right back on the horse. This is what we believe we must do as bootstrapping Americans: We ride again. But what happens when you can’t? Do you think of yourself as somehow less than? Can the power of the will overcome the maladies of the body? In these early scenes, nobody is saying, “Maybe you shouldn’t ride,” the hard truth that he probably needs to hear most. Tears burst from my eyes in the moment when Brady — so subtle a performer — allows himself to accept that Lane will not be getting out of his wheelchair. With just a quick downward flick of the eyes conveys everything we need to know from this incredibly reserved man.
In so many cowboy stories, it’s romantic love that salvages the man, that gives him a reason for going,. What’s so effective in The Rider is that the love that sustains Brady is for his family, his friends, his horse and the land he rides upon. While the story may elicit many tears, the pride of the Lakota people, even amid economic uncertainty, is on brilliant display — and even stirs some hope.
When I met Brady at TIFF and told him I admired his performance, he tipped his cowboy hat to me and said, “Thank you so much for saying that. I’m not an actor.” Well, he sure fooled me.
– April Wolfe