Universality and The Rider

One of the ways the secularization of the West has adversely affected our cultural institutions is that it has made it difficult for journalists to write about God. I don’t mean that journalists should specifically proselytize for Christianity or Buddhism or Islam. But when they are presented with a subject that is charged with religious themes, journalists should be able to use religious language. Instead, most will fall back on politics, science or sociology to attempt to explain their subject when a reference to Gerald Manley Hopkins, the Dali Lama or the Sufi mystics is a more penetrating reference.

Such is the case with The Rider, an exquisitely beautiful new film directed by Chinese filmmaker Chloé Zhao. A “docu-drama” that won the Art Cinema Award at Cannes last year, it tells the story of Brady Jandreau, a rodeo star in South Dakota whose career was upended when he suffered a terrible head injury during a ride. Jandreau plays himself in the film, as do many others including his dad Tim and sister Lilly. Interestingly, we see a petty and unsympathetic (real-life) father go against others who encourage him to return to the rodeo despite the danger. Doctors have warned him that one more bad ride could be his last.

Brady is a responsible, honest, and kind young man who suddenly finds himself confused, anxious, and adrift. He can’t help but feel he has been robbed of his life prospects. “God gives everything a purpose,” he says. “The purpose of the horses is to run the plain. The purpose of the cowboy is to ride the horses.” What happens when that purpose is thwarted? That’s the central question here. While many critics have pegged The Rider as a film about anxious masculinity in the postmodern era, in reality it is about faith, destiny, and the Almighty. In this sense it has nothing to do with gender. One could even compare it to another recent release, Aaron Sorkin’s Molly’s Game (2017), which also featured an athlete (in that case a female skier) forced to renegotiate life after an injury.

The Rider opens with Brady arising in the steely light of dawn to unwrap his head bandages, revealing a stapled six-inch wound that covers the right side of his skull. More difficult to manage is the neurological damage that was caused by his fall. Brady is understandably wary of getting back in the bullpen, and a mini-seizure makes his right hand unexpectedly clench into a fist. The viewer is then taken into four different storylines, with Brady spending time with his family (mostly arguing with his drunken, abrasive father), with his cowboy friends, and with one of these, Lane Scott, a fellow bull rider (also playing himself) who is in a wheelchair and suffers from severe neurological damage after a car accident.

Director Zhao got lucky in discovering the Jandreau family and its circle. Casting non-actors can be a high risk, but the 22-year-old Brady is a natural. (“I’ve always been up for a challenge, and you gotta connect with the camera and the audience the same way you gotta connect with the horse,” he recently told Vanity Fair. “There’s just a little bit different way of going about it. Less words with a horse.”) Forbearing and handsome, Brady is a reminder of Jeff Bridges’ observation that becoming a great actor took him 20 years spent learning how to be still in front of the camera. This movie’s hero is a calm presence who can break horses as well as bring a smile to the face of his friend, Lane. His serenity and skill would seem to point the movie toward an obvious Hollywood resolution: finding his God-given destiny as a horse whisperer or medical doctor.

Zhao doesn’t take the obvious way out—or perhaps cannot, considering that The Rider is based on real people and events. Brady is left as he began, a young man with pride, frustrated by the cards he was dealt. His every intention is to get back up on that horse and resume rodeo competition, but his body might not cooperate. Brady’s anxiety comes out in bar fights, arguments with his family, and quiet refusals to follow doctors’ orders.

The film was shot on location on South Dakota’s Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, and is full of the majestic vistas reminiscent of classic American westerns. Cinematographer Joshua James Richards (2017’s God’s Own Country) wisely leaves the camera mostly still to allow  nature herself emerge as a character. The musical score by Nathan Halpern is subtle and often not even there, a wise choice in this age of Hans Zimmerian overkill; the natural sounds of the Dakota plains are let in to enrich the beauty. A scene of Brady with his friends sitting around a moonlit campfire at night, playing guitars and talking horses and women, is the kind of mystical prayer one finds in the work of Terrence Malick. (It is also refreshing to see young Americans outside and not attached to their phones.) The Rider is a film charged with God, whether your God is the Christ who went into the desert, the Yahweh of the Old Testament, or the spirit of the American West.

This is not a movie that deserves to be reduced, as the critics have reduced it, to the quotidian political squabbles that contaminate cable news and social media. Even though Brady Jandreau does feel that his injury has stolen some aspects of masculinity, in the end The Rider is no more about contested social questions of manhood than Molly’s Game is about feminist rage. Zhao, as I indicated, has bigger fish to fry. Like all the best art, this movie takes a subjective look at a subject to reveal transcendent and universal truths. It will resonate with anyone who has felt upended and desperate because life turned out different than planned.

One can hope that The Rider’s being the work of a female, Chinese director will put paid to absurd notions of “cultural appropriation.” Artists of any color or nationality should be completely free to follow their muse wherever it might lead—from China to South Dakota, back in the other direction, or anywhere—and to hell with the ideologues and philistines who would stand in their way.