Rodeos, Disability, & Mental Health: Why you should revisit Chloé Zhao’s THE RIDER before NOMADLAND

The Academy Awards are on the horizon and NOMADLAND is tipped to clean up. But you can't watch it yet, so Maxwell Tait talks you through why it's the perfect time to go back to THE RIDER, Chloé Zhao's astonishing breakout film.

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“Who the fuck is Chloé Zhao?”

That is the question Frances McDormand asked herself after watching The Rider, Zhao’s entry into Toronto International Film Festival 2017. McDormand herself was there with Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri — six months away from winning her second Academy Award for Best Actress, twenty years after Fargo. “I had one of those perfect afternoons at a film festival. Alone, but not alone, in a theatre with good sound and projection and having a slightly musky-smelling, sacred shared experience.”

That feels like a long time ago now. Cut to present; Chloé Zhao is arguably the hottest director in the USA. Nomadland, Zhao’s inevitable collaboration with McDormand, was the festival champion of 2020, and is quite rightly the bookies' favourite for this years inaugural Zoom-Oscars. And if that wasn’t enough, she is looking comfortable in the director’s chair for Eternals, Marvels cash-calf starring Angelina Jolie and Kumail Nanjiani. All of this makes it increasingly appropriate to wind back four years and revisit the breakout film that earned her this reputation — The Rider.

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Brady Blackburn is an aspiring rodeo star in South Dakota. His moderate success makes ends meet for his family. He pays the rent on the trailer he shares with his troubled but well intentioned father, and his teenage sister, who has Asperger’s Syndrome. After involvement in a serious riding accident, Brady is forced to come to terms with the reverberations of a near-fatal head injury — The Rider begins while the staples are fresh on his wound.

We see Brady watching videos of his previous successes on his phone; explaining his injury and its consequences to sister Lilly, grappling with the heartbreaking decision to pawn his riding gear at 25 cents on the dollar. And these moving vignettes have all the more weight for the fact that they are based on real life: Brady Blackburn is played by Brady Jandreau, his sister Lilly is his real-life sister, and his injury, and most of his world we see around him, is real. Some films depend upon the inflated emotional impact that is gained from having foundations in reality, and given the chance, would tattoo that familiar phrase ‘based on true events’ on the entire cast’s foreheads. It was not until after the end credits fell that I became aware of The Rider’s documentary elements, and the film’s ability to succeed on its own merits is testament to Zhao’s filmmaking prowess.

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The gorgeous splendour of the Badlands of South Dakota has become familiar ground for Zhao. The Beijing-born, London-raised, LA-based director has clearly developed an affinity with the setting of both The Rider and debut feature Songs My Brothers Taught Me, succumbing to the vast plains, rolling hills, biblical skies, and golden-hour sunsets. Having predominantly grown up in urban environments, Zhao has talked about a feeling of being deprived of nature; “[it] humbles you … it makes you put things in perspective all the time.” There is a physical majesty to the landscapes in her films that demands respect, and by framing these characters within such tremendous vistas, Zhao ensures that the insurmountable power of nature is never overlooked. The implication is never a war against the elements, but a necessary understanding and collaboration with the environment. As protagonist Johnny Winters says in Songs My Brothers Taught Me, “When the wind is too strong we all know to lean into it, so it don’t blow us away”.

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The Rider’s setting also highlights the peculiarity of the ‘21st century cowboy’, an odd juxtaposition of enduring American style and modern imagery: we’re talking bucking-bronco YouTube compilations, rodeo themed hip-hop, and cowboy hats and energy drinks. Gambling has always featured heavily in Western culture, but there is a sense of absurdity when instead of playing cards around a saloon table, it is through the blue light of fixed-odds terminals. And this juxtaposition is what creates the key conflict at the heart of the film — how does such a masculine, pride-fuelled endeavour respond to very contemporary questions of mental health, trauma, and disability?

Brady is a considerate and reflective agent for the film’s scrutiny of such a high risk vocation, and, though he is not the most talkative cowboy, his character is clearly defined by his actions. Remarkably patient, Brady displays a particular sensitivity for those that have difficulties with communication, like his sister, and his patience contributes to his instinctive understanding of horses. Long, uninterrupted takes of Brady breaking these majestic and wild animals are meditative and joyful experiences to get lost in, as is always the case when watching a master of their craft.

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His compassion is highlighted in scenes with real-life childhood friend Lane Scott. Fellow rider Lane suffered a similar accident to Brady, only his left him with severely impaired motor abilities. Brady regularly visits Lane, who communicates by signing and spelling letters, and they watch old rodeo videos of Lane in his pomp. Eternally patient with his dear friend, he is always at his side during the difficult rehabilitation — the scene of Brady helping Lane ride once more is as moving cinema as you will see.

Fragility is a defining feature of masculinity, and there is an imperceptibly fine line between an impressive scar as a symbol of physical robustness and bravery, and a crippling injury with devastating effect. Existing within the limbo of this margin, Brady is utilised expertly for The Rider’s deeply compassionate exploration of this subject. The patience he exhibits is reciprocated by the film — whether it be the composure of the editing, or the vastness of the scenery, there is so much space and time within The Rider that, despite the film’s short runtime, there is the capacity for these real characters to fully express themselves.

Joshua Richards

When comparing her debut Songs My Brothers Taught Me to The Rider, you can see Chloé Zhao’s very distinctive style being formed and expertly refined. Nomadland follows this pattern, continuing her blurring of documentary and fiction, set within humbling, natural surroundings. Based on Jessica Bruder’s 2017 non-fiction book of the same name, Nomadland finds Zhao once again telling real stories of marginalised communities in the American midwest, this time focusing on the exploitative gig economy that has risen from the 2008 national recession. Frances McDormand is Fern, who after the loss of her home and her husband, begins a nomadic life in her motorhome. Like The Rider, Nomadland highlights the transient effect of displacement — in times of turmoil, Zhao continues to provide rock-solid perspective.

The Rider is available to rent on BFI Player. Nomadland is currently scheduled for a UK cinematic release on 19 March 2021.

@mwntait / @living__image