The Rider takes a spiritual journey

AP
"The Rider" is a spiritual journey into the fading world of the Lakota cowboy, starring the real people.
AP

Brady Jandreau, a Lakota cowboy, plays a fictionalized version of himself Brady Blackburn in the film.

Cinema might have found a worthy successor to early Terrence Malick in Chloe Zhao, whose second feature “The Rider” is a spiritual journey into the fading world of the Lakota cowboy, starring the real people who inspired her film.

As in her first, the beautiful “Songs My Brothers Taught Me” which was also set on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, Zhao transports us to the badlands of South Dakota to tell the story of a rodeo cowboy who must give up his dream after suffering a devastating brain trauma during competition. Brady Jandreau, a Lakota cowboy and member of the Lower Brule Sioux Tribe, plays a fictionalized version of himself Brady Blackburn in the film. Jandreau was actually thrown from a horse which then stomped on his head during a rodeo in 2016. He was in a coma for three days and now has a metal plate in his head and lingering effects from the trauma.

In “The Rider,” we meet Brady soon after the incident, as he’s taking the staples out of his own skull and adjusting poorly, to a new life of caution, away from the energy and excitement and danger of the rodeo. Brady lives in a mobile home with his dad, Wayne (played by his real life father Tim Jandreau), who gambles and drinks too much but has a good heart, and teenage sister Lilly (also his real sister), who has Asperger’s Syndrome. Brady seems to be in denial and his friends don’t seem to understand the gravity of the situation either.

“By NFL standards I should be dead,” Brady explains when drinking with his buddies one night. But they respond to him like his injury is temporary, like he just needs to brush it off and power through the pain, “like a cowboy,” one says.

Brady is lost in this new reality. He understands what life looks like after injury, often visiting his friend Lane (Lane Scott), a former daredevil in rehab who can no longer walk or speak after his rodeo accident.

Zhao clearly has a deep affection for her subjects who have so graciously let her into their lives, and with almost documentary rigor, expose some of the difficult truths of life with disability. But there is also grace and beauty within the hardships too.

Her use of non-actors is a plus, but it has its limits too. Brady, while a deeply compelling and empathetic presence, can appear a little blank at times when the camera gets close-up. He’s strongest and most natural in his normal routine, training horses, or interacting with Lane or Lilly.

Its examination of the cowboy masculinity, that leads Brady and his peers to seek a life of thrills and danger, only scratches the surface, but you’ll be surprised at how intoxicating and enveloping it is. “The Rider” is a story of death and rebirth and cements Zhao as one of the most promising filmmakers to come on the scene in some time. Like Sean Baker, she takes her camera to parts of the country that many of us rarely see or take the time to consider. 


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