Don’t give up on your dreams.
Whether you’ve ever rode a horse or not, you know what happens when they’re injured. It could be that you saw the black and white decision to put one down in a movie. Or maybe you heard about a bad break during one of the televised derbies people get all crazy about. This is generally what happens with all animals. If a pet is sick to the point of having its way of life decimated, euthanasia becomes the humane choice. And yet assisted suicide is illegal in all but eight states when it concerns human beings. You could be paralyzed and desperate to go, but there’s nothing to be done without a terminal diagnosis. You must remain living, trapped inside your body like a prison regardless of wishes.
I’m not implying everyone in that situation feels the same. Some victims of severe ailments can walk away from near tragedy to live happy and fulfilling lives as long as they stop doing what they love. But to them this is as bad or worse because in their hearts they can still do that thing. And they will risk everything to continue because giving up is death. This is the mindset of Brady Blackburn (Brady Jandreau playing a fictionalized version of himself) when we meet him at the start of Chloé Zhao‘s The Rider. A twenty-year old wild horse trainer and rodeo rider from back before he was a teenager, Brady arrives onscreen in the aftermath of a nasty, skull-crushing stomp. He lost his identity in an instant.
That will be read as hyperbole to some, but it’s the honest truth. Jandreau went through the same psychological turmoil upon suffering the identical accident in real life. It took one fall to ruin his chance at rodeo glory, one fall to test his mettle as a Lakota cowboy on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. Because being a cowboy comes with a code of toughness. The lifestyle carries an air of machismo wherein pain proves constant and the perseverance to conquer it a necessity. You do these dangerous things as a matter of personal pride with the chance of death looming as a fantasized “blaze of glory” you’d be honored to fall prey to if fate demands. You don’t think about what happens if you live.
Zhao puts those thoughts onscreen with an introspective look one man’s internal war between what he could be and what he is. Awake from a coma and keen to put his life back together as quickly as possible, Brady is confronted with the choice of being a man capable of longevity or a cowboy one bad jolt away from incapacitation or death. And it’s not like he wasn’t already aware of the consequences. He isn’t the first bronco bucker to be inches from oblivion or the first in his circle of friends. That distinction lies with Lane Scott (playing himself)—a better rider than Brady with more confidence, experience, and promise. But those words mean little against the results of a collision with a one-ton animal at full-speed.
If Scott’s paralyzed body barely able to use sign language and smiles for communication wasn’t a cautionary tale before, it must be now. What was a sobering example of a freak accident to a brazen young man filled with immortality transforms into a mirror upon his future. For friends who still feel indestructible, Brady’s own injuries are badges of honor to overcome and get back out there. His knee-jerk response is to agree because “cowboying up” was the mantra he was raised under. Counting his lucky stars in that type of environment is a means to regroup rather than stiffen up. And if the Blackburn family—Dad (Tim Jandreau‘s Wayne) and a younger sister with Asperger’s (Lilly Jandreau‘s Lilly)—were rich he probably wouldn’t have even paused.
But they aren’t. Brady needs to pitch in financially and gets a job working the local grocers since riding during recovery is forbidden. It’s the responsible thing and yet it only makes him want to return to the past more. Whether it be fans recognizing him and treating him like a celebrity in the aisles or the claustrophobia of standing behind a counter when the rolling hills were just outside the door beckoning him, any opportunity to test his luck becomes necessary towards staying sane. So he works to break some local horses and contemplates signing up for another rodeo. He starts listening to the voices of old telling him to get back on his feet and “be a man” when acknowledging his limits is the manliest choice.
How do you turn that craving off, though? How do you simply cut out a piece of who you are? The struggle is real; the drama steeped in a melancholy of depression as those who truly care for him (fellow rider Cat Clifford and his father) change their tune. Zhao makes certain to show it authentically, refusing to fall into Hollywood trappings of random one-eighties to augment a conflict that already exists inside Brady’s mind. These men ask him to quit without saying the words. They’re forcing him to confront what getting back on a horse means, but they will stand in his corner regardless. And while that empathetic compassion is externally inspiring, it internally reinforces how Brady must choose between death of body and death of spirit.
You start to think to yourself which ending is worst: Brady dying after getting back on a horse or his resignation to the fact his dream is done? This plays into Zhao’s hands because she knows her ending will be devastating either way. It allows the story to progress naturally and its very real emotions to run their course. We feel the frustration seething within Brady as he weighs his options and combats an ideology of stubbornness instilled since birth. He attempts to take a step back and recognize what about his former life is important (his sister, the horses, and nature itself away from hospital beds) and what he can do without. Brady only hears sympathy as hypocrisy because “rider” had always defined him more than “man.”
The result is a magnificent look at what it means to be human. And while the acting is less than desirable at times being that everyone plays him/herself, I’m not sure The Rider would possess the same impact without such verisimilitude. It means more to see Scott on YouTube for evidence of the electric personality he possessed before his accident than an actor pretending to be disabled after. Watching Brady’s spiritual dance when taming a wild horse means more towards understanding the connection that would be lost if he gave it up than an actor going through the motions with a trained animal. Zhao is documenting life itself on the Pine Ridge Reservation through this one young man’s pain. She’s showing how true strength is saying, “No more.”
 Brady Jandreau as Brady Blackburn. Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics
 Tim Jandreau as Wayne. Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics
 Terri Dawn Jandreau as Terri Dawn. Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics