The Rider: When the Rodeo’s Over

By Sandra Hale Schulman
- News From Indian Country -

A breakout low budget hit, Chloé Zhao's The Rider mixes up real life and fiction in ways that have never been done so well before onscreen. Real-life saddle bronc rider and Lakota Sioux Brady Jandreau, is a daredevil 20-year-old with a busted head, hand and hip. In the movie he plays busted up rodeo rider Brady Blackburn, along with his real life fellow rodeo riders and Asperger afflicted sister.

This intermingling of real and tall tales gets an intensely honest and intimate portrayal of this life and community. At his last rodeo, a stallion stomped on his skull – there is actually footage of this in the movie as the riders repeatedly watch their rides on playback on their phones. Jandreau barely survived, the film opens with him taking the bandages off his real life stapled up head. His hand is partially paralyzed and his hip is busted too. To make matters worse his doctor orders him to never ride again. That is just a slower kind of death there on South Dakota's Lakota-Sioux Pine Ridge Reservation where being a rodeo star is the best it’s going to get in life. You learn pretty quickly he won’t take that advice and he’ll suffer the fatal consequences if it comes to that.

Based loosely on the story of Jandreau's own true story of going from a rodeo up-and-comer to an injured cowboy we watch as he struggles to put his life back together and what that will look like without the rodeo. We see his daily routines, his attempts to work a dull job in a five and dime store, hanging with his buddies and his sister and father. When his father has to sell his horse to save money, it’s another small death of his world.  

There’s a scene where he breaks a horse and it’s mesmerizing. He communes with the animal and gently earns it’s trust. In a short period he has saddled it and is riding it, the wild look of fear in the horses eyes totally transformed. This is a real life scene and Brady does this in real life.

Another heartbreaker is his interaction with his buddy Lane Scott, another rodeo star who had his dream ended when he became paralyzed in a car accident. Brady visits him in his rehab center, shows him bronc riding videos, puts him on a saddle and talks about his life as Scott sits there mute and nodding. This is stunning stuff with the boundaries of life and movies bouncing around like tumbleweed.

The director, astonishingly, is a Chinese woman Chloe Zhao, who ended up in the South West on a whim and became fascinated by the life of the natives there. She first met a teenage Brady Jandreau several years ago and after watching him work with emotional horses figured he could work the emotions of an audience.

Brady breaking a horse.

Brady had been riding since he was 15 months old and he met his best friend, Lane Scott, when they were toddlers; as they grew up, they straddled bulls and saddle broncs. At first Lane was the star. Both figured they'd soon turn pro and bet their futures on eight seconds astride a bucking bronco; but Lane's injury in a car accident sidelined that particular dream.

In 2016 Brady’s reckoning came as a bucking rodeo bronc cleaved a three-inch, knuckle-deep gash in Jandreau's skull. As manure and sand ground into his brain, he went into a seizure, then a coma. He woke up and ripped the tubes out of his body vowing to get back on a horse.

That's where Zhao began her film, and the stapled scar on his head is real. Tim Jandreau plays his screen father; Brady teen sister plays the character's sibling with Aspergers syndrome, who manages phrases of truth as she navigates her odd world. Despite doctors order Brady was back on a horse in two weeks.

You root for him and you fear for him, like boxing movies where you want the injured champ to go one more round though it’s likely to kill him. The alternative isn’t really living anyway.

The visuals are vast and windswept, sunsets glow and horses whinny in the dusty corrals. Brady’s coordinated bandanas and leather chaps embroidered with feathers and fringe ring true to the life.

The film ends on a wistful hopeful note, maybe the ride is real or maybe it’s a dream. In this masterful film, it’s both.

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