Chinese filmmaker Chloé Zhao’s first feature film, 2015’s Songs My Brothers Taught Me, was the result of months spent living and documenting South Dakota’s Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. The film was cast almost entirely with non-actors from the area, with a narrative loosely based on the performers’ own experiences, and it explored, in the director’s own words, a “part of America I think is disappearing.” Zhao’s follow-up, The Rider, is likewise set in and around the reservation, exploring a fading tradition: the adrenaline-junkie compulsion of the bronco rider, the heartland’s modern cowboys.
Real-life bronc rider Brady Jandreau, his father, Tim, and Brady’s younger sister, Lily, who has Asperger’s syndrome, play variations on themselves, a casting strategy that looks as if it may become Zhao’s hallmark. If that suggests a documentary approach, though, The Rider plays, strangely, more like a typical scripted drama, its performances telegraphing emotion in more predictable ways and its screenplay tightly structured.
The Rider’s narrative is a fairly familiar one of daredevilry and recovery: Following a bronc ride that’s left him recuperating from trauma, with a metal plate in his head, Brady Blackburn (Brady Jandreau) weighs a desire to continue pursuing his passion against the very real chance that one more ride could end his life or leave him in a state like his paraplegic friend, Lane Scott. (Scott, a former bull-riding star, also plays a version of himself here, though in reality it was a 2013 car crash that left him partially paralyzed.) Of course, Brady also has his family to think about, especially Lilly, who appears visibly concerned each time horses are mentioned around her.
The proximity of this fiction to actual fact adds an inherent layer of interest, especially in scenes between family members, which resemble the kinds of conversations they must have, or have had, about the real Brady’s accident and his high-risk life choices. But those opportunities aren’t seized on as directly as they could be; the writing instead emphasizes the universality of the family’s struggles, turning a potentially very personalized narrative into more of an archetypal one. An exception to this is a scene in which Brady is woken up by a group of his cowboy buddies and dragged out to the middle of nowhere for a night of drinking and guitar playing around a campfire. As the friends work in unison to raise Brady’s spirits and take his mind off his injury, each reveals a bit about themselves, their own cultural ideas, ethnic backgrounds, and individual feelings on the American West.
The scene feels almost as if it was lifted from Songs My Brothers Taught Me, so much more apparent is its awareness of a lasting colonial influence over the region. The Rider is a generally depoliticized work, much more so than Zhao’s previous film, which seems due in part to the director’s total commitment to capturing a cultural milieu in the way those whom she makes her films about must see it. Thankfully, this film isn’t totally passive; it manifests a mounting sense of disillusionment, suggesting that the rodeo lifestyle many characters (and by extension, their real-life counterparts) so unreservedly romanticize often leads to physical and psychological ruin.
The film that The Rider most closely resembles is Darren Aronofsky’s The Wrestler, which likewise filled a good portion of its cast with sports professionals as opposed to actors—most unapologetic about the dangers of their craft—and toed the line between indulging an underdog’s zeal and cautioning overexertion. Zhao’s film is more intuitive, never once letting its individual moments lapse into the emotionally maudlin, but in terms of its overall structure and the specifics of Brady’s post-accident life, it feels tidy and conventional. Jandreau’s presence should heighten the sense of realism here, but instead Zhao seemingly directs the first-time actor into being the laconic, brooding screen presence that this kind of film would normally call for (an impression dispelled only in the scenes in which Jandreau works with horses, displaying a kind of innate talent no one could fake).
Zhao studied political science before becoming a filmmaker, and her first feature offered a sociopolitical milieu worth exploring. The Rider presents Zhao with a counterpart to that earlier story: the mainstream entertainment industry of rodeo culture, largely developed from traditions of the American cowboy. The tension existing between two identities that throughout history have existed in absolute opposition of each other is fascinating, and it was one of Zhao’s stated reasons for making this film. But her devotion to an immediate social realism becomes something of a stumbling block to examining a region within a broader cultural context.