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Modern-day Western The Rider tells the story of a young man (Brady), who was a hugely promising rodeo cowboy in South Dakota until a near fatal head injury sustained on his horse forces him to re-evaluate his lifestyle. With a metal plate in his head and doctor's orders never to return to his passion, Brady finds himself at home with little to do, no qualifications, and seemingly few prospects. Finding casual employment holds little appeal for him however, and Brady is quickly yearning to get back into the saddle, despite the obvious dangers.
Rodeo is a controversial competitive sport involving horses and other livestock, designed to test the skills of cowboys and cowgirls with events such as bull riding and calf-roping. Opposed by many animal-rights organisations, it is banned in parts of the world including the United Kingdom, but remains hugely popular in the United States, Spain, South America, Australia and New Zealand, particularly in rural areas. Despite the controversy, it remains a strong part of the cultural identity of certain regions, rodeos often being important community events for sparsely populated rural areas. For people like Brady, it is also perhaps the only viable option they have for meaningful employment and economic prosperity. The practice is a popular theme in American Country & Western music, and it plays a significant role in films such as Brokeback Mountain.
Similar in tone and mood to the recent Lean On Pete, The Rider is a remarkable blending of fact and fiction. Brady is played by real-life cowboy Brady Jandreau, who experienced a very similar injury to his fictional on-screen counterpart shortly before filming began. Other members of his family also play versions of themselves in the story, as do some of his friends, and the narrative is roughly 50% fiction and 50% documentary, with shifts throughout between improvisation and script. The film's director, Chloe Zhao, first met Brady and his family when working in the same area on her previous film, Songs My Brother Taught Me, developing a strong trust that allowed her to develop a story based, in part, on Brady himself with acute insight and sensitivity.
Aside from the rodeo, one of Brady's gifts is in the area of horse training. There are several stunning, near wordless sequences in the film in which we witness Brady interacting with and gaining the trust of sometimes extremely wild creatures with both speed and tenderness. It is clear that Brady has a unique bond with these animals, and that his relationship with them makes up a key part of his identity.
This kind, compassionate approach can also be seen in Brady's relationships. He has a difficult time with his father, who is prone to aggression and drinking too much, but has a close relationship with his autistic younger sister, often serving as a surrogate parent figure, as their birth mother is no longer around (it is implied she has died a few years ago) and the father is often physically and emotionally absent.
Another important relationship is with fellow rodeo rider, Lane Scott (also playing himself), whose injuries are far more serious than Brady's and have left him unable to walk or speak, and with very limited use of his hands (he is just about able to communicate with Brady using his fingers in one hand to form the shapes of letters). The pair spend time in Lane's hospital room reminiscing and watching old YouTube videos of Lane's former glories, and it is clear Brady still idolises his friend. It is a rare thing for cinema to depict friendship between two young men in such warm, authentic, and sensitive ways.
However The Rider is also a study of contemporary masculinity, and the struggles many young men feel through the need to prove themselves to friends and peers. Not only is Brady desperate to get back in the saddle, he is constantly egged on by the other men around him to do the same thing, particularly as his injuries are viewed as "not as serious" as those of Lane. A man of few words, Brady also embodies a masculine tendency to repress emotions and not discuss mental health issues for fear of appearing weak and vulnerable. Complicating this still further is the fact that, for Brady, his income, independence, and identity are all tied up in the rodeo. With his father placing the family in debt due to alcohol and excessive gambling, Brady's need to ride again becomes more than just male pride.
He remains, however, an important, respected part of his community. He is a genuine expert at horse training, his services are frequently called upon by other people to assist them, and it is clear the film is capturing a fictionalised version of relationships that go back many years. Working in a local supermarket to get some money together, he is recognised by two young boys who see him as a local celebrity. It is not difficult to make the connection between him, and young British footballers who for whatever reason did not quite make it to professional level, and suddenly found they had little to fall back on, finding themselves somewhat stuck.
Sometimes, in cinema, it is filmmakers observing from the outside who make the most acute observations about a society and the individuals contained within. Taiwanese filmmaker Ang Lee has repeatedly demonstrated this, including his never-bettered take on the society of Jane Austen in Sense & Sensibility, the previously mentioned iconic gay love story Brokeback Mountain, and his satirical take on American suburbia, The Ice Storm. Directed by a female Chinese filmmaker, The Rider deserves to be regarded on the same level. It is a beautiful, compassionate, and remarkably honest look at contemporary masculinity, mental health, the American landscape, and the mindset of one individual coming to terms with re-evaluating his entire identity.
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