Fractured Lives

Whilst all of the attention in Hollywood this week is on the success of Crazy Rich Asians, with its all-Asian cast, the arrival of Chloé Zhao should also be celebrated. The Beijing-born filmmaker, who trained in America, returns with her sophomore film, The Rider. Her first film Songs My Brothers Taught Me premiered in 2015. Shot on Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota, it was during its making that the seeds of The Rider were sewn after she met Brady Jandreau, a former rodeo star also living on the reservation.

In April 2016, Jandreau fell from a horse and its hoof hit him in the head, fracturing his skull in three places. It’s this traumatic accident that forms the basis for The Rider, a hugely authentic and poetic tale that stars Jandreau as Brady Blackburn, a thinly-veiled autobiographical character who suffers exactly the same fate. When it happens, the doctors warn him that returning to ride again could easily be fatal if he falls. But how can you tell a cowboy to stop riding when it’s all he’s known for all of his life?

Zhao leans more towards drama than documentary, despite drawing from real-life events and featuring Jandreau and his father, sister and various other family members and friends in the film. Brady’s accident inhibits movement in his hand and leaves him prone to seizures, although he’s one of the lucky ones. More than once, Brady visits Lane, his friend, who suffered severe brain damage after a similar riding accident.

Despite his fall, the responsibility falls on Brady to earn money and look after his autistic sibling, while his aggressive father drinks and gambles. Earning a pittance breaking in horses, Brady even takes a soul-destroying job working as a store clerk to make ends meet.

Working intently with her cast, Zhao elicits tremendous performances from her non-professionals, in a story that looks at the very harsh realities of rodeo life and the sometimes desperate actions one must take when faced with losing the thing you love the most. Jandreau, who clearly has a remarkable ability to communicate with horses, shines amid Zhao’s minimalist and yet moving approach.

The Rider opens on 14 September. For more details, visit Altitude entertainment.

James Mottram

1. Stills from The Rider. Courtesy of Altitude.