You can’t fake “The Rider.” Chloe Zhao’s lyrical docudrama blends fact and fiction into an intimate portrait of American masculinity at large and a solitary cowboy trying to find his way back to the only life he’s known. Utilizing a cast of non-actors — most of whom are tasked with playing versions of themselves, in a story pulled from their lives — Zhao’s film derives its power from the truth that both drives it and inspires it, and the final result is a wholly unique slice-of-life drama.
Zhao first made waves with her 2015 feature debut “Songs My Brothers Taught Me,” a festival favorite set on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota that tracked the bond between a pair of Lakota siblings. It’s also where she discovered young rodeo cowboy Brady Jandreau, who makes his debut in “The Rider” as an on-screen version of himself in the worst period of his own life. The way Zhao tells it, she wanted to make another film about the people of Pine Ridge, and she specially sparked to Jandreau, who exhibits a natural charisma and ease. But Zhao didn’t know the story she would tell until a terrible accident at one of Jandreau’s rodeo competitions forever altered the course of his life.
We don’t need to see the accident to understand its vicious power. “The Rider” opens with Jandreau (here cast as “Brady Blackburn”) removing tightly packed bandages to reveal the skull-spanning wound that slashes across the right side of his skull, still stapled and barely holding together. Later, “The Rider” briefly introduces home video that chronicles the real rodeo accident, a lightning-quick fall that could have been just another tumble, until the horse happened to stomp on Jandreau’s head, splitting it open. It’s not bloody or gory, but it’s shocking. Jandreau’s own face — playing on-screen Brady, but watching real-life Brady, reacting to his own fate — tells us everything we need to know.
It could have been the end for Brady, but it wasn’t. Brady searches for meaning in something that still seems senseless and wholly accidental, but unable to compete and reticent to get literally back on the horse, Brady’s life chugs along at a muted pace. His friends (including fellow cowboys Tanner Langdeau and James Calhoon) try to pull him back into the fold, while his family (Jandreau’s own father and sister, lightly fictionalized versions of themselves) are terrified that another accident will kill him.
Who is Brady Blackburn without rodeo? Zhao’s film offers a number of answers, one of which takes shape thorough a series of alternately wrenching and inspiring scenes between Jandreau and his own real-life best friend Lane Scott, a former rodeo star who was grievously injured in a car accident and is now mostly paralyzed and lives in a rehab facility.
Lane is a stark reminder of what can happen when the body is betrayed and broken; another film could turn Lane and Brady’s visits into heavy-handed sequences, but Zhao never does. Jandreau’s deep empathy and his real-life bond with Scott add another level to the interactions, which are among some of the most emotionally rewarding on screen this year. That Brady is trying to hide some of the lingering effects of his own accident further punctuate that he’s risking everything to just be himself.
As Brady inches his way back, he returns to the very creatures that hurt him: his beloved horses. The future of Brady’s rodeo career may be a question mark for much of the film, but his affinity for animals is never in doubt, and scenes of Jandreau training and riding a variety of horses — often easing the most skittish ones, breaking them in gentle ways — beautifully illuminates why it’s so hard for him to walk away from the only world he’s ever known (Joshua James Richards’ cinematography, always intimate, is almost unbearably lovely and loving here). When he finally makes his choice, Zhao pulls back, leaving Brady (both Blackburn and Jandreau) to face the future, one full of terror and wonder, but one finally full of possibility.
“The Rider” will hit theaters in early 2018.