Chloé Zhao’s melancholy neo-Western drama The Rider is a remarkable film for a number of reasons. First is the almost painful empathy it has for its characters, a modern-day collection of pot-smoking, cell phone-slinging young cowboys living on the impoverished Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. Second is the film’s main character, Brady Blackburn, a wild horse trainer and wannabe rodeo star who suffers a near-fatal brain injury while bronc busting. And yet our protagonist gets back in the saddle (literally and figuratively) weeks later, pursuing the only lifestyle he’s ever known—despite the fact that it could very well mean his death.
The remarkable part is that Brady Blackburn is played by Brady Jandreau, a real-life wild horse trainer and wannabe rodeo star who suffered a near-fatal brain injury while bronc busting. The roles of Brady Blackburn’s quietly disappointed father, his developmentally disabled sister and all his rodeo-worshipping pals are played by Brady Jandreau’s real-life family and friends, heavily blurring the lines between fact and fiction.
So how does a Chinese filmmaker living in Denver end up having a mutualistic symbiotic relationship with a South Dakota cowboy? Zhao met Jandreau while shooting her 2015 indie drama Songs My Brother Taught Me on the Oglala Lakota Native American reservation. It was there she saw her first Indian cowboys. Speaking on the phone while out on a press tour for the film, Zhao admits, “I didn’t know they existed before. I met some of them and thought they were this amazing American contradiction. Culturally, they were a very different group of people that I knew nothing about. I was quite ignorant. And after meeting some of them, I put them in my first film. I always had a desire to make a film about them. Then when I met Brady, it became very clear who the star of that film should be.”
Jandreau, who recently passed through Albuquerque as part of the Professional Bull Riders Tour (he wasn’t riding, just visiting old friends), recalled the meeting as well. Serendipitously, the filmmaker visited the ranch Jandreau was working at. “Chloé come out to the ranch, the Muleshoe Angus, to learn about cowboys in the heartland of America—especially Indian cowboys. That’s where I met her, on or about April of 2015. We talked. She told me she was a director. I had never been around anyone who had anything to do with movies. Chloé told us she wants to come out and ride horses with us. She wants to go do ranch work with us. I was, like, ‘All right. But we don’t pay very good around here.’ ” Zhao explained she wasn’t looking for a career change, only doing research for Songs My Brother Taught Me. By the end of the summer, she “leaned how to ride very well” and became fast friends with Jandreau.
Less than a year after the filmmaker and the cowboy met, Jandreau suffered his horrific head injury, fracturing his skull in three places at a local rodeo. “I rode Gus two weeks after my injury, and I started training wild horses for the public about a month and a half after my injury.” recalls Jandreau. “That’s when Chloé found out about it. She’s like, ‘Whoa. Are you crazy? You could die.’ I was like ‘Well, I don’t feel alive not riding.’ That’s one thing that really inspired her to write [The Rider].”
Motivated by the tale, Zhao approached Jandreau with the idea of starring in a movie based almost entirely on his own real-life story. Jandreau agreed. “I figured if she’s not scared of getting on a 1,200-pound animal that she’s never seen before, then why would we be scared of cameras?”
The Rider, which has snapped up a number of awards at international film festivals, is difficult to categorize. Is it a documentary? Is it a biopic? “I know that people use the word docudrama. I understand why that word is used. But on a personal level, I’m not a huge fan of the word, because this is fictional story,” points out Zhao. “I want to give credit to these actors, who are amazing actors. They are not just ‘being themselves.’ They’re actually acting, just like any other actor. So I think I’d call it a fictional film inspired by real people and played by real people.”
“I’d say probably 40 percent of it is entirely fiction,” assesses Jandreau. For example, unlike in the film, Jandreau’s mother is not deceased. Also, “I never worked at a grocery store.”
Despite the fact that Jandreau is no professional actor, his portrayal is haunting and—above all—brutally honest. Though he says little, there’s no doubt this guy is carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders. Jandreau credits Zhao for the results. “I’m a horse trainer. I call Chloé the actor trainer. She makes it easy to act. But then again a lot of that had to do with my past life. I always had a lot of weight on my shoulders.”
Despite what sounds like the makings of an inspirational true-life tale, The Rider is no feel-good story of overcoming adversity. It’s a story of crushed dreams, thwarted lifestyles and tough economic realities. Although he now operates a horse training ranch with his wife, Jandreau’s rodeo career is a thing of the past.
At one point in The Rider, the fictionalized Brady tries to drive home the seriousness of his injuries to his macho rodeo pals, “This is a brain injury. It’s not just a broken rib.” The response comes back, tellingly, “It’s all the same to a cowboy.” So what drives young men to get into such a dangerous lifestyle?
“To many young people on the reservation, they feel that there’s no hope, there’s no way out,” says Jandreau. “To many, this is their hope and a way out—whether it’s just traveling to rodeos or going big professionally. Many of us are brought up around it not knowing anything else. I got on my first sheep at the mutton busting at a rodeo when I was 2 1/2. Basically, my love began. It’s just really hard to let go of something so prominent in your lifestyle and the lifestyle of those around you.”
It’s that admirably stubborn stick-to-it nature and quiet country dignity that The Rider ultimately celebrates. “When I first met Brady, he did not have this injury,” says Zhao, summing up her motivation. “So it wasn’t that I was interested in this head injury and wanted to make a film about that. It was Brady that I found had star quality and wanted to make a movie about that.”