What happens when all you’ve ever dreamed of is taken away? That is a question that many films ask, but few answer it as beautifully and spiritually as Chloé Zhao’s The Rider. This is a partially fictionalized story set on the Pine Ridge Reservation. It blends fiction and non-fiction seamlessly to subtly blend hope and despair, beauty and starkness, suffering and healing.
Lakota cowboy Brady Blackburn (Brady Jandreau) is recovering from a near fatal rodeo accident. With a metal plate in his head, doctors have told him that he can’t ride anymore. But riding and training horses are all he’s ever cared about. The film begins following Brady with staples still in his scalp. As he heals, he longs to get back in the saddle, but for him it could be deadly. The film watches as he breaks a wild horse, first by talking, touching, and in time riding. Brady has a gift for calming a horse and gaining its trust.
With his friends Brady tries to keep up the hope that he’ll ride again, and they encourage him. Brady also visits Lane Scott, a rodeo rider, who was injured in an auto accident and can only communicate with one hand. With Lane, Brady speaks and touches in ways very much like he does with horses. He exudes gentleness and compassion.
One of the things I noticed in the film is that nearly everyone is injured and in need of healing in some way. Brady’s sister Lilly (Lilly Jandreau) has Asperger’s syndrome. There is a man with a hook of a hand. Brady’s horse Gus has a nose worn raw from rubbing a fence. But sometimes, things cannot be healed. His other horse Apollo is injured beyond help. It leads Brady to wonder why he rates being kept alive more than a horse does.
Although the film only occasionally is overtly religious (the film does have some excellent authentic prayers), its spiritual power is much more subtle. Healing in this film is rarely about the physical. It is the healing of souls that the characters engender in one another. Brady and Lilly both have severe handicaps, but their love for each other and their commitment to care for one another gives them strength and hope. Lane is completely wheelchair bound, but Brady sets things up so he can relive the experience of riding once again in a scene that may seem heartbreaking at one level, but at the same time, it is a powerful example of giving a friend a gift of regeneration—at least regeneration of the soul.
The Rider is the kind of film that may exhaust you from the depth that is hidden within its simplicity. But from that exhaustion one will come away with a renewed belief in the perseverance of the human spirit.
The Rider received four Film Independent Spirit Award nominations.
Photo courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics