In THE RIDER, director Chloé Zhao re-examines the Hollywood version of the cowboy. The cowboy on his horse riding through the plains with the setting sun behind him so a Hollywood staple. For decades, much of our perception of the American West came from films not history books. An entire period of American history has been filtered through the silver screen.

Along with shaping history, an entire masculine identity has been formed around the idea of the cowboy. The solitary hero, like Shane or the Man with No Name, who says little but does a lot. “Ride through the pain,” one of THE RIDER’s characters says. This summarizes the cowboy ethos. Fight through the raw feelings to maintain the tough visage. The desperado sworn to protect the innocent. This ideal is, as THE RIDER inadvertently reminds us, a fiction.

Making of THE RIDER

The Rider
Director Chloé Zhao on the set of THE RIDER

THE RIDER stars Brady Jandreau, playing a semi-autobiographical version of himself. In an interview with the Argus Leader, Jandreau describes meeting Zhao years before the film started. The pair discussed multiple ideas for the film’s plot. It wasn’t until Brady’s fateful head injury that they discovered what the film could be. In the interview, Brady states:

“It was only a month and a half after my head injury that I was taking in horses to break again. She said, ‘You could die.’  I told her I didn’t feel alive not being to do what I love to do. And she said ‘OK, I think we have a movie here.”

It’s this creative symbiosis between director and performer that creates such an elegant and moving portrait. You can sense that the creation of this film was a cathartic experience as much as an artistic one.

At first glance, there are certainly parallels between this film and Darren Aronofsky’s THE WRESTLER. Both revolve around characters who are unable to continue their chosen professions because of debilitating, life threatening injuries. While Aronofsky’s film tips towards well-acted melodramas, Zhao goes for verisimilitude.

What also separates THE RIDER from THE WRESTLER is the way it’s central characters are presented. Randy “The Ram” from The Wrestler is a man well past his prime who is trying to regain his stolen youth. By contrast, Brady has had his youth stolen from him. Brady is a rising star in the world of rodeo, but his head injury has cut his ascension short. He is left with nothing but the constant reminders of the game and glory he could have had.


Chloé Zhao’s America

Director Chloé Zhao is a rising voice in American cinema. Her films match the sweeping vistas of John Ford’s American West with the New Wave realism of Francois Truffaut. Zhao’s films confront our preconceptions of the American West by examining what it looks like in 2018. Her first film, SONGS MY BROTHERS TAUGHT ME, explores the lives of teenagers living on the South Dakota Pine Ridge reservation. In the film, Zhao gives the audience insights into the everyday struggles of the Lakota Sioux people. These same people who were villainized by Hollywood but, in reality, were the victims of white colonial oppression. The film is an unglamourous yet authentic portrayal of life in some of the poorest communities.

It’s that same economic disparity that, in part, lays low the legend of the cowboy. Following his head injury, Brady (also of Lakota descent) is forced to compromise his dreams to help his family make ends meet. His father is behind on their rent, so his best option is working in the local grocery store. Brady drudges through aisle after monotonous aisle. He spins his price gun as if it were an old Colt .45: the modern cowboy, stripped of his legend.

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Zhao juxtaposes these contemporary images, lit by harsh fluorescent lighting, with the natural beauty of South Dakota. In these scenes, Brady looks at his most complete. He tells his sister later in the film that a rider has got to ride. The audience sees this in a stirring scene where Brady breaks a horse (Zhao actually shot the process as Brady was doing it in real life) just how much his connections with these animals means to him. 

“Cowboy Up”

Through most of the film, Brady is taciturn and thoughtful. He probably speaks more to the horse he is training than anyone else in the film. Zhao conveys that the true power of the cowboy comes not from the speed of their draw but from the compassion they share with the steed.

Ultimately, Zhao and Jandreau’s most effective accomplishment with the film is the way it pierces the masculine facade of the the cowboy. In an interview with Rolling Stone, Jandreau commented on the process of finding the emotions necessary for his scene work.

“[Jandreau] told Zhao his saddest childhood memories, both of them about foals he bottle-fed before they died, until the tough cowboy began to sob on camera. ‘That was a version of coping for me,’ Jandreau says. ‘I had to find a whole new way to harness my emotions. I don’t think you’re very strong unless you’ve cried a few tears. You’ve never really lived.’”

Perhaps part of what makes the film so powerful is we are watching Jandreau come to terms with his injury in real time. If “ride through the pain” is the cowboy ethos of the film, then Jandreau’s process of making the movie with Zhao is the ride itself.

The Modern Cowboy

What makes Chole Zhao’s films so compelling is her ability to show us the legend of America as it is now without judgement or a sense of guilt. Yes, the people who inhabit the worlds of Zhao’s films often live in poverty, but we are never meant to pity them. Instead, Zhao reveals to us what the human spirit truly needs for fulfillment beyond the material. In the Argus Leader interview, Jandreau gets to the heart of this need for fulfillment:

“I feel like there’s a lot of things that the body just needs from the land. I’m not saying necessarily by being a cowboy or Native American. I think we all have a spiritual connection to the land that if we don’t feed right, the body finds its way to something else that probably isn’t as good.”

It’s that need that drives Brady, drives us all, towards what we desire most, even if that means doing harm to ourselves. We all ride through the pain, but sometimes we have to find a place where we can live with just being content.

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