My favorite Western of the year thus far has to be The Rider, a film about Native American rodeo performers that takes place in the contemporary western setting of South Dakota’s Lakota-Sioux Pine Ridge Reservation. The film centers on Brady Blackburn, beginning in the aftermath of a head injury suffered in the rodeo ring, and the story is based on the events experienced by rodeo performer Brady Jandreau. Just to underscore the documentary-like elements of the film, not only does Brady the actual rodeo performer play Brady the fictional rodeo performer, but the rest of the Blackburn family is filled out by other Jandreau family members (by Brady’s sister and father).
Among other things, this is a film about recovery from traumatic brain injury. The film is low-key and closely observational of how Brady recovers (and how he doesn’t). In much of the film Brady is by himself, and he’s a compelling screen presence, even as the character is constrained, low-key, quiet. There are several really good scenes of Brady training horses, hanging out with horses, riding horses, or just watching horses. The low-key Brady really comes to life around horses, and the transformation is amazing. His interaction with horses is emotional, psychological, animated, communicative, vibrant.
Without horses, Brady is half a person. Several scenes of Brady stocking shelves in a convenience store contrast sharply with the vibrant scenes involving horses. The risk of further brain injury makes horse riding (and just being around large animals) dangerous. Other side effects of the injury take their toll throughout the film. His friendship with another injured former rodeo performer, Lane Scott (who plays himself in the film), is as therapeutic for Brady as it is for Lane. Still, nothing in Brady’s life brings him to life as much as his time spent with horses (although, in his interactions with Lane, Brady is closer to the person he is when working with horses than he is with any other humans).
The film is written and directed by a Chinese filmmaker, Chloé Zhao, and it actually reminds me of another contemporary Western by a Chinese filmmaker, Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain. Like that film, The Rider asks: how do you exist when you have to live your life without the thing you love? can you?