“You can overcome anything if you work hard enough” is an infectious idea, a brick in the foundation of the American Dream. But that depends on how accessible that dream is in the first place. The titular hero Brady Blackburn of “The Rider” confronts such boundaries as he pines to return to the rodeo pedestal.
Rarely do Native Americans faces command an onscreen presence. While the recent historical romance “A Woman Walks Ahead” empowers Native American voices, it still fits a pattern of regulating Native Americas as supporting players to white-centric narratives. On the other hand, Chloe Zhao’s gentle drama “The Rider” gives the spotlight to the Lakota face of Brady Jandreau, whose real-life head injury inspired the film.
Zhao shot “The Rider” and her first Lakota-centric feature “Songs My Brothers Taught Me” on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, which encompasses a dark history of American oppression, namely the 1890 Wounded Knee massacre. Zhao commits to the naturalism to illuminate the crass realism of day-to-day lives. Harkening back to “Songs My Brothers Taught Me,” where the hero had to choose between homeland loyalty and leaving its dreary borders, Brady is disillusioned in his homeland of the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. Zhao anchors Brady in a harsh reality where dreams just aren’t feasible, physically, and economically.
Like Valeska Grisebach’s “Western,” “The Rider” places a female lens on the toxic masculinity that plagues society. Wracked with a crippling damage in his brain and hand, Brady wants to resurrect his glory days as the masculine “cowboy up” ideal. But his head injury, in which the wounds are exposed in the chilling opening as Brady plucks off blood-tipped surgical staples, imposes considerable inertia as he lugs himself toward reviving his bronco-riding career.
Zhao complicates our reaction to Brady’s pursuit by unfurling the layers of his predicament from economical to spiritual. On one hand, it respects his free-spirited desire to get back up. In his desperate economic station, we feel for Brady as he takes up a menial job as a price-checker to pay off his father’s gambling debts in a sterilized store, a black-hole nightmare for many in the poverty loop. On the other hand, his physical constraints are incurable. His dream could cost him his life, but the “die trying” adage sounds like a consolation should the dream claim his life.
In every film, we do not want to believe the naysayers. His father Tim (Tim Jandreau) gruffly commands him, “let go,” judging that his son’s delusions of grandeur could lead to fatality. It’s antagonistic and rubs salt in Brady’s wounds. Brady’s fellow friends believe in him, but they don’t buy that Brady’s condition needs gradual recovery time or is incurable. So much for the ideal of “hard work gets you anywhere.” It can’t cure a head and bodily injury. But Brady can hide his wounds underneath his hat so that from the distance, he looks functional in the eyes of his less informed friends. Thus, expectations are projected onto him. Masculine peers insist he’s a failure if he does not get back in the arena. They don’t see his injury as a grim anchor, but as just another hurdle to jump over.
To counterpoint these “supportive” friends’ unrealistic expectations, Brady turns to another acquaintance for empathy: a tetraplegic Lane Scott (playing himself) who bears a bronco-related damage that Brady cannot hide beneath his cowboy hat. With Lane, Brady finds relief from the pushiness of his friends, and they watch their good ole’ days on crude iPhone videos where they were worshipped superstars before their respective injuries. Unlike Brady’s able-bodied friends, Lane first-hand knows that not everything is hunky-dory with Brady’s quest.
Zhao leaves an understated tragedy in the inconclusiveness to Brady’s predicament. Brady nearly crosses the borders of the rodeo ring for his epic career comeback, but he walks away at peace with his vulnerability for better or worse. Lane feeds Brady some encouragement to not give up on his dreams, but Brady is left to meditate on its open-ended meaning. Can Brady choose to try again if he wishes? Or should Brady redefine the dream to find satisfaction?
We trust Brady can survive. He doesn’t need to indulge in grandiose visions; there is satisfaction in hunkering down. Lane’s encouraging lets Brady be open to other avenues. But we’re not shown happier alternatives for Brady’s post-rodeo existence. Nor is the whole of Brady’s underprivileged society resolved. Who is part of the American Dream? Certainly not those excluded from the prosperity of the American Dream. Sometimes the practicalities of life aren’t obstacles, but realities. Sometimes the forces that question that sparked these dreams in the first place are questionable.