Chloe Zhao’s The Rider unfolds as a film filled with tensions: history vs. the present, disability vs. wholeness, human vs. animal, isolation vs. connection. The film follows Brady Blackburn (Brady Jandreau), a young, twenty-something horse trainer and rodeo rider who has recently suffered a serious head wound. Independent to a fault, Brady has checked himself out of the hospital, hoping sheer will and grit will get him back into the rodeo ring as quickly as possible.
Ms. Zhao highlights the film’s thematic tensions by working with a strong contrastive visual sense. While much of the film is shot in interior close ups, with characters in the frame isolated from one another and the world, Ms. Zhao incorporates a number of exterior wide shots that situate her characters within their respective environments—or just show us the landscape itself. This sense of contrast continues to force us to break out of thinking just about Brady and his interior world. These wide exterior shots serve the purpose of reminding us that Brady’s world isn’t just what is in his head, but what is all around him as well.
That the film follows a young Lakota Sioux man places it in a particular historical and cultural context that is important for the film’s narrative. One of the great tragedies of American expansion was the loss of the prairie for the native Americans. Once the Europeans had settled and marked off the great plains, the natives were left without their livelihood and forced to find new ways of being in the world. This adaptation was profoundly difficult for a whole host of reasons (only some of them internal to the tribes), and it left these tribal communities in a far weaker state than they had been. Brady’s story mirrors this American tragedy, as the young cowboy loses his livelihood and is forced to adjust on the fly, with no resources and very little guidance.
To this point in his life, Brady seems to have situated himself on or in close proximity to a horse. There really has been nothing else for him. However, his injury begins to create obstacles to that vision of himself as a cowboy. His suffering with a form of seizures that force his fist to clench around anything in his hand (including the reins for his horse) only serves to indicate the difficulty Brady will have in letting go of his cowboy life.
Brady is in a precarious position. His injury has brought limitation to him for the first time in his life. He wants desperately to be whole again so he can continue pursuing his purpose. However, wholeness remains an elusive goal. Brady’s situation carries with it a sense of universality, in the sense that we all have our moments of reckoning with our limitations. This is part of what it means to be a finite human in a broken world.
Brady reflects on this brokenness in the context of the animals he loves so dearly. When a horse is injured to the point it cannot do what it was made to do, we put it out of its misery. Not the same with human beings. We are different. Though we might wish for death in our lowest moments, we realize that life continues to beckon, even if what is ahead remains a deep, dark mystery to us.
Into this reckoning of life and purpose, Ms. Zhao incorporates the character of Lane Scott, a rodeo rider and friend of Brady’s who has been gravely injured sometime prior to the film’s opening. Brady says early in the film that he hadn’t visited Lane in quite some time, because he’d been busy on the rodeo circuit. The contrast with the rest of the film is both striking and productive for thinking about the critical way the Brady/Lane scenes inform what’s going on with Brady. Brady’s visits with Lane form the foundation from which Brady will decide whether to turn inward and continue to rely simply on himself, or whether he will reach out for connection with others. Ms. Zhao’s concluding scene brings these themes together in a profound way, lighting the way to a better way of being in the world.