Entertainment

'Rider,' an elegiac portrait of a wounded cowboy, mixes fact and fiction

Posted April 18, 2018 6:49 p.m. EDT

Viewers of Chloe Zhao's intense, elegaic ``The Rider'' could easily assume they are watching a documentary. They aren't; but what they see isn't entirely fictional, either. This meditation on the life of a severely injured rodeo rider is a kind of hybrid, fact and fiction mixed in a way that the two deepen and extend each other.

The main character, Brady, is a young rodeo cowboy of Lakota heritage who suffered a devastating accident -- he was trampled by a horse during competition. He has a steel plate in his head, and has been told that his riding days are through. The character's name is Brady Blackburn, and he is portrayed by Brady Jandreau, a non-actor who suffered the same accident with the same results.

The real Brady's father (Tim) and sister (Lilly) are also in the movie, as the main character's father and sister. The film also has Brady pay several intensely moving visits his friend, Lane Scott, a former rider left paralyzed by an accident and much more debilitated than Brady himself. The friend is played by the real Lane Scott.

Zhao discovered Brady Jandreau on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota, where she was making her first feature, the highly regarded ``Songs My Brothers Taught Me.'' That was a great gift to the filmmaker, since Brady is a natural, and we come to feel deeply about his struggles to come to terms not only with the loss of his livelihood, but of his identity and sense of self worth.

Brady, who hasn't graduated from high school, lives in a trailer with his autistic sister, with whom he has a delightful relationship. Her impairment is not falsified or covered over. Drifting in and out of the scene is their father, prone to gambling away funds needed to cover the rent, and an old-school, man's man of a cowboy.

Gorgeous images of the Dakota landscape are suffused with melancholy as Brady quietly ponders his few options, beyond low-level employment at the local supermarket. He has been a talented and effective trainer of horses, and some of the film's most moving scene show him at this work, which he deeply loves, and which may be the key to his future. He has an almost supernatural empathy for these animals, and his aim is not so much to ``break'' them as to gently introduce them to accept a human presence in their lives.

Also affecting are Brady's visits to his friend Lane, who is unable to speak and has very limited movement. Brady helps him with his rehabilitation labors, which even include exercises that mimic the very rodeo riding that wrecked his body. The two friends also enjoy video footage of Lane in his cocky, manly prime, and the contrast to their current state is heartbreaking.

The nice thing about ``The Rider'' is that Zhao never succumbs to the temptation to reduce Brady's story to something easy to encapsulate or sell to an audience (or studio, or festival). The movie is a rendering of the internal landscape of a contemporary cowboy, with the complexities and ambiguities left intact. It's a kind of parable, delivered in a manner that has nothing to do with preaching.

3 stars out of 4 stars

The Rider

Drama. With Brady Jandreau, Tim Jandreau, Lilly Jandreau. Directed by Chloe Zhao. Rated R. 104 minutes.