If ever there was an icon of the United States, renowned throughout the world, it is the cowboy. It is not merely generations of Americans reading Zane Gray and watching countless Westerns on TV and in the movies; their German-speaking counterparts even today are often enough drunk on the yarns of Karl May’s Apache chief, Winnetou, and his white blood-brother, Old Shatterhand. Roy Rogers, John Wayne, Gene Autry and countless others ensured the place of the old cowpoke in the imagination.
In the modern day, the city-dweller may be forgiven for imagining that the cowboy has vanished with the frontier and the family farm – doomed to live on only as a motif for such fantasia as Westworld. Surely, the stoic cowboy – short of book-learning but naturally polite enough to inevitably tip his Stetson to any lady he encounters; stoic, but bottling up his emotions inside and cutting loose with his pals; painfully loyal to family and friends, but suspicious of strangers – surely, he rode off into the sunset long ago with Marshal Dillon and the Cartwrights.
But in fact, if the new movie ‘The Rider’ may be believed, he has not. Apparently, while California has been legislating new genders and New York City’s Marxist mayor pursuing a vendetta against Central Park horse carriages, the cowboy has continued to live with his code in such flyover states as the Dakotas, Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, Texas, New Mexico, and elsewhere. Apparently, young folk in such places – while their “betters” are seeking refuge from uncomfortable opinions in stuffed-animal-ridden Ivy League safe spaces – are learning to ride at an early age, and sometimes risking life and limb to do so.
Despite its complete lack of both CGI and professional actors, “The Rider” is an engaging film. I say engaging, but “cathartic” would be a better adjective than “entertaining.”
Its story is gritty, hard-edged, and unsparing, and in fact is a thinly veiled account of the actual life of the actor (Brady Jandreau) who plays its protagonist, (Brady Blackburn). Jandreau’s father and sister play his sibling and parent onscreen, and his friends all play themselves. A few months before the film opens, Lakota cowboy Brady was bucking a bronco in a rodeo and was kicked in the head. We see his slow recover from his extensive injuries, and his deep desire to get back in the saddle.
Some time before that, another friend of his, Lane Scott (played by Lane Scott, whose backstory is also true) similarly incurred injuries that are far worse. Brady visits Lane several times during the course of the film, underscoring the fact that Brady could have had it far worse – and may still, if he is not careful.
His father being hardup for money, Brady takes an unskilled job in a supermarket, but yearns for the excitement, the glory, and the money that a return to rodeo could win him. In the meantime, he is able to ride again, and practice his proven ability at breaking horses.
Brady has a seizure, however, and he is warned by the doctor that he must never ride again. Despite this, he decides – very much against his father’s wishes – to take part in another rodeo, which may quite likely kill him. When his father accuses him of never listening, Brady replies:”I always listened! Who told me to man up and be a cowboy?” His father refuses to go to the rodeo, and very possibly see his son die. The result is quite satisfying: it is not a “happy ending,” but both father and son in the end live up to what they believe the code demands, and demonstrate their deep – tough – love for each other.
This is a very masculine, very American film; what makes it all the more remarkable is that the filmmaker is a Chinese woman named Chloé Zhao. As mesmerized by the American West as Karl May, her first film, “Songs My Brother Taught Me” (2015), was a story of Lakota Sioux women leaving the reservation for Los Angeles. While filming it, she met Indian cowboys and became entranced by their ethos, culture, and way of life.
She also met Brady and his family at that time, and was trying to figure out how to write a story about them. He then had his accident, and the story wrote itself. She has said, “I met Brady, and it’s just incredible how he really honors a way of life that is rapidly disappearing in Middle America, this identity people have that they try to hold on to.”
It is difficult to imagine such a film coming out of Hollywood today. As Miss Zhao told the Huffington Post: “For ‘The Rider’ specifically, at a time like this in America when we are so divided and because of Trump people in middle America is almost demonized for having voted for him, it is so important for me as a storyteller to not just tell the obvious stories. I find what I do best is to go to the other side of the line and to remind people on my side that these are human beings also. The media is constantly trying to tell us on both sides how we are essentially different as human beings, because by dividing us they can take advantage of us.”
To which her interviewer responded, “Divide and conquer!” Zhao replied: “Of course it’s not only about issues but you are building bridges between people who would typically disagree and argue.”
How popular a message that will be among Miss Zhao’s fellow liberals is as impossible to gauge as it will be among conservatives. But regardless of whether the film is successful in that regard, it has succeeded in catching in amber an important chunk of modern Americana. Moreover, it does what few films to day do: it challenges us to reexamine our own values and integrity in the light of great misfortune. It may not be a “fun” night at the movies, but it a true work of art.