“The Rider” is a docudrama as elegy, a slice of rodeo realism that both romanticizes and demythologizes the Cowboy Way in a corner of America where that still means something.
Chloe Zhao’s follow-up to “Songs My Brother Taught Me” could have been set in a gym where Latino boxers weigh the danger of their sport with the machismo and hope for a better life that it gives them, or in a myopic world of drugs and gangs of an inner city, or a coal mining town where digging is just what men do.
It’s about American masculinity, desperation, obsolescence and the fatalism of “the only way I know” to better oneself.
The tale is simplicity itself — a fictionalized account of a working poor rodeo rider recovering from a life-threatening/career-ending injury. It stars such a rider, Brady Jandreau, and his father Tim Jandreau and sister Lily Jandreau. They are the Blackburns, here, hardscrabble versions of their real-life selves, struggling to get by on the fringes of South Dakota’s Lakota Reservation.
We meet Brady, his head wrapped in bandages hiding a grisly skull fracture. He’s checked himself out of the hospital against doctor’s orders, popped the staples holding the bandage in place and gone home. He needs to heal his own way, look in on his special-needs sister and blow off the criticism of his widowed father.
“Why don’t you go inside and sober up?”
He needs to talk to his horse and visit his dead mother’s grave.
“I was tough, Mom.”
Over the course of his recovery, we’re immersed in his world and his worries about losing touch with it. His circle of cowboy friends have a “Cowboy up,” “Rub some DIRT in it,” attitude about injuries. Every male of every age that he meets shares that hope that he’ll “get back up on that horse,” literally.
Then there’s Lane Scott, the star of that circle of rodeo friends, barely in his 20s and in assisted living — paralyzed, unable to speak because of his own rodeo hard fall.
None of them would call these injuries “accidents.” You get on a bucking horse, and skill or no skill, you take your chances.
He may get a part time job at the DakotaMart, but when we see Brady take his first tentative steps back into this life he’s been warned away from, we get it. In a couple of long, uninterrupted takes, the director lets Brady tame unbroken horses, win their trust and make them useful.
It’s all he knows, but it’s also what he has a gift doing.
Zhao has created as intimate a character study as is possible for such Marlboro Men. The handsome, rawboned cowpokes here bond over war stories — rides that went right or wrong, drink beer by a bonfire, talk without saying anything too revealing and peer-pressure each other into living up to a code, the myth of a thousand Westerns and thousands more “Dang ol’ rodeo” Country and Western songs.
The performances are documentary-natural (non-actors, mostly), the drawls are so mumbled the film needs subtitles, the stoicism so thick you could cut it with a buck knife.
“The Rider” has an arm’s-length relationship with his broke, drinking, gambling and honky-tonking dad, but never figures out that the Old Man might be grieving for a lost way of life (and his wife) himself.
But what they’re both grieving is obsolescence, horizons that have so closed in around them that hope no longer really enters into it. For all the lovely landscapes, we know the breathtaking sunsets are preceded and followed by days and nights that are little more than bleak.
In an era when “toxic masculinity” is the phrase that pays, and white male entitlement is the cardinal sin, Zhao has broken ranks with that to deliver the first great film of 2018, revealing a stark and beautiful vision of a culture in mourning, of a way of life literally riding off into the sunset.
MPAA Rating:R for language and drug use
Credits: Written and directed by Chloe Zhao. A Sony Pictures Classics release.
Running time: 1:43