Chloe Zhao’s Cannes-winning modernist portrait of American masculinity and self-worth is nothing less than a triumph.
Identity is a seamlessly flowing paradigm of the self. It’s an intrinsic part of who we are, what we believe, and how we meander through our interpersonal relationships and obligations. Identity provides individuals with a boundary, a means in which to exist and with that, provide a sense of emotional security and purpose. But as is the case with most of our higher functions, it is seldom stable. Reality–and the ways in which we identify with it–is a product of our self-awareness and subsequent self-reflection. We are contingent on our identity to correspond with our sense of reality, both outwardly and inwardly, as a means of providing a grounded existence. Without it, we are doomed to psychological duress.
That seems to be the case for Brady Jandreau (playing himself) in Chloe Zhao’s mesmerizingly humanistic The Rider, who feels a strong sense of incongruence between his identity and his reality. The former makes Brady yearn to be a star rodeo rider while the latter keeps him from strapping on that worn saddle onto his prized Arabian horses after a debilitating rodeo injury. With deep, zipper-like stitches running the length of his head after a three-day coma, Brady is told by doctors that his rodeo days are likely behind him. Any subsequent injury of the same caliber would surely kill the young Sioux cowboy.
Knowing what life would be like for his young, Asperger-afflicted sister (Lilly Jandreau) with his gambling-addicted father (Tim Jandreau), Brady attempts to find stability in a world he does not know. From demeaning menial jobs to emotionally exhaustive relationships, Brady does everything he can to mesh with ordinary life–to quash his identity and live in the reality that he understands to be his new existence. And yet, a deep sense of unease overtakes Brady, who is soon yearning to return to his true calling of rodeoing.
But that unease and continued sense of existential finality is kept in place–and in fact magnified–by best friend and fellow rodeo rider Lane (Lane Scott), who has suffered permanent brain damage and as a result must be kept in intensive rehab for the foreseeable future. Brady feels obliged to honor Lane in contradictory means, both by keeping away from his rodeoing ways and actualizing the warning that is Lane’s fate, but also by jumping back on the saddle and doing what Lane continues to yearn to do. Brady’s predicament is one that he must come to grips with by either abandoning his perennial sense of identity as a cowboy and rodeo rider or abandoning the medical advice, and with it, the potentially deadly reality.
Chloe Zhao’s The Rider works tirelessly to portray this dichotomous motivation that exists in Brady’s mind. From the meditative pace that is deliberate and revealing to the late-stage Terrence Malickian freewheeling camera work from Joshua James Richards, The Rider is a searing view into masculine humanism. He is both manly and yet sensitive; strong yet feeble; vulnerable yet hardened. Harking back to the days of Lee Strasberg-influenced acting of Marlon Brando, Montgomery Clift, James Dean, and Paul Newman, the brooding sensitivity that is put on display by Brady Jandreau is remarkably refreshing and true-to-life. Perhaps that can be attributed to the docudrama approach by Zhao, who after visiting the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation during the filming of her last picture, Songs My Brother Taught Me, enlisted the Jandreau family to be the focus of her subsequent film. It is an approach that ensures the film remain a deeply modernist narrative, one that points out the natural inconsistencies between one’s reality and identity.
Whether it’s Brady’s background as a fair-skinned Native American or his continued motivational conflicts, The Rider rests its cinematic laurels on creating a complex yet astutely poignant coalescence of Americanism. The film points to the sociocultural intersectionality that is present in nearly every part of America, whether it be New York, Los Angeles, or the long, sprawling fields of South Dakota. As a result, there is no one-dimensionalism in the diegetic world of The Rider. Instead, the film effortlessly showcases the difficulties of belonging to, and fighting for, two co-existing worlds.
Verdict: 5 out of 5
Chloe Zhao’s searing The Rider seamlessly oscillates between fact and fiction, creating a heart-wrenching emotional landscape that will leave viewers breathless and self-reflective. Combined with Joshua James Richards’ astutely tight camera work and Brady Jandreau’s naturalistic acting skills that give off a sense of poise and charm, The Rider provides audiences with a humanistic reality of Americana life.