When filmmaker Chloé Zhao met rodeo rider Brady Jandreau, she was shooting her debut feature Songs My Brothers Taught Me on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota. The pair developed a rapport, resolving to make a movie together, but they had no story, let alone a script. The following year, Jandreau sustained a severe injury to his skull in a rodeo accident, effectively ending his riding career. The story of Jandreau’s recovery became the basis of Zhao’s latest film.
As a docudrama, The Rider builds its ideas through staged images and motifs, but its story, its casting, and its thinking are rooted in Jandreau’s reality. Facing the same dilemmas as the man who plays him, Jandreau’s character Brady Blackburn contemplates what kind of person he can be now that his body will no longer bear the wear and tear of pursuing his dreams.
As Brady stews, Zhao opens the film to other members of Brady’s community who have reckoned with their physical and mental limits, thoughtfully probing the connection between identity, or the soul, and the body. In one of the film’s best scenes, Brady trains a bucking horse, calming its fits with gentle touches, quiet attention, and trust. The Rider skillfully follows suit, accompanying its characters with patience as they acclimate to unanticipated ways of being.