In Nicholas Ray's The Lusty Men, American cowboy masculinity is explored via the exploits of Jeff McCloud (Robert Mitchum), a washed-up former rodeo champ who takes aspiring novice Wes Merritt (Arthur Kennedy) under his wing to show him the ropes of riding. McCloud can’t hack it anymore (for fear of permanent injury or death), but still needs to feel that old rush, even if it’s vicariously. Despite having already settled down with a fine wife (Susan Hayward) on a farm that makes them a decent living, Wes knows there's something else out there: a greater calling, through which he can prove his manliness. Naturally, this aspiration for circuit stardom leads to McCloud inadvertently making a monster out of his protégé, who in turn gets a bit too big for his britches, causing everyone else around him (including his loving better half) to no longer recognize the new Bronco Billy.
Chloé Zhao's The Rider plays like an inverted update on Ray's undervalued classic, as it follows real life riding star Brady Jandreau after he's already achieved a level of fame in his tiny South Dakota town that few others have ever seen. Unfortunately, after a near fatal head injury, Brady must now grow accustomed to an existence that doesn't involve proving himself on these wild stallions, but instead training them through a gentle connection he shares with the animals through years of experience. It's a story Brady’s lived – along with his gruff, Coors-swilling father Tim, and mentally disabled sister Lilly (also playing themselves) – as Zhao’s film derives its power from a combination of stark truth documenting her subjects' slice-of-life, with a Malickian admiration for the American heartland at Golden Hour. The two amalgamate in an idiosyncratic slice of poetic realism that – while not necessarily saying anything new about cowboy virility – is still hypnotic in terms of sheer craft.
Zhao first met Jandreau while helming her ‘15 freshman feature Songs My Brothers Taught Me – a similarly lyrical drama set on Dakota’s Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. Somehow, she convinced Brady – who makes quite the understated (but no less powerful) debut in The Rider – to essentially play a very slightly fictionalized iteration of himself, during arguably the most depressing period in his life. Apparently, Zhao found Brady in a basement during a party, and wasn't sure what sort of story she could mold around the horse king, whose natural charisma immediately drew her in. However, once Jandreau was injured during a terrible show accident, the narrative molded itself, as her camera became fixated on how his broken body and brain wouldn't let him live the way he'd become accustomed to. He was a cast off in a violet-tinged American wasteland, searching for a new sense of purpose.
The first time we meet Brady, he's removing bandages from his head, revealing a set of staples that keep part of his split scalp together. At first, he seems completely ready to jump back in the saddle – both literally and figuratively – never one to let his macho buddies taunt him around the campfire regarding not being able to ride again. Only, for all of Brady's bravery and environment-inherited machismo – the tried and true country slang "cowboy up" fired off like bullets from an emotional firearm – Jandreau's truly terrified. When he finally does get back up on his favorite beasts, he often has to yank the reins and halt, as spasms in his right hand make it impossible to hold the ropes steady. Worse yet, he's faced with the constant presence of Lane Scott (who also plays himself), his best friend who's been rendered an invalid by a similar injury. Is looking at Lane like looking into his own future, should Brady not be able to give up the ghost of these great dreams?
The scenes with Lane are heart-crushingly sad, as Brady visits the severely disabled man in a rehab facility, where the two roleplay what it would still feel like for the wheelchair-bound cowboy to ride a horse in his hospital room. Later, Brady watches videos of Lane – all youthful, denim-clad swagger and sexiness – along with old videos of himself competing. For all the stunning visuals Zhao and cinematographer Joshua James Richards (God's Own Country) craft together, the juxtaposition between these two cowboys' once unbreakable bodies and their new stations as decimated vessels containing shining spirits are still the most powerful. In these antiseptic cubes, Brady connects with a man who can no longer speak, yet we still feel the loving bond they share, as two individuals who have endured similar trauma. It's a tragedy that fuels Brady's decision to ride those broncos yet again, or perhaps hang up his spurs for good.
At times, The Rider feels like an impressionistic take on a lost Cormac McCarthy novel, filtered through the hazy, horizon-staring ambiance of Michael Mann. Dialogue scenes and wordless sequences drift past our eyes, the thematic issues at play always clear, even while Zhao's narrative takes a moment to completely crystalize. The familiarity of the writer/director's broad stroke painting of maleness may frustrate some, but true joy is discovered in her rather ethereal execution of a very particular vision. By the end, we feel as if we just sat in on a prayer session, as Brady gets a giant, ornate cross tattooed on his back by one of his best friends. The Rider is a blessing in that it hopes its audience can discover the same spiritual strength that Brady does to face whatever this new reality turns out to be. With great change comes immense heartache, but it's in the pieces of our former selves that we seek to build a new, gentle way of being.