In the neo-Western 'The Rider,' the cowboy and the Indian are the same person

Yes, those suture staples that the title character in The Rider is pulling out of his head are real.

His name is Brady Blackburn (Brady Jandreau), a rodeo performer dealing with the aftermath of a severe head injury – career threatening, which in Brady’s case is almost the same as life-threatening.

Some of the most important ideas that Brady has about himself come from his status as a rodeo star, one of the best on South Dakota’s Pine Ridge reservation, where’s he’s lived his whole life. Brady is Sioux, raised to love horses and riding, a passion he’s transformed into a skill set that keeps him atop a bucking horse longer than most competitors.

>> Read more: The western rides back from the sunset in ‘The Rider,’ one of the best films of the year

On the reservation, he’s a star and a hero, possessed of a status that most young men don’t have.

Most of this we learn in reverse – The Rider reassembles a picture of Brady that at the movie’s outset has just been shattered. The accident has brought a probable end to his career – he has a severe concussion and associated (and persistent) symptoms, including a fist that clenches involuntarily. He grasps a rope and can’t let go, a dangerous flaw for a man in his line of work, and an apt metaphor for his attachment to a sport that his given his life purpose and meaning.

His turmoil feels as real as those stitches, and why not? Jandreau is a real-life Pine Ridge rodeo rider, playing a barely fictionalized version of himself, and director Chloe Zhao (Songs My Brothers Taught Me) brings a documentarian’s eye to his story, augmented with some striking photography making the most of the movie’s picturesque Badlands geography.

It all adds up to a handsome, engrossing slice-of-life movie with the feel of a Western, inventive and unique. The Rider desegregates a genre that typically presents cowboys and Indians as separate and opposing forces – archetypes unified here in one remarkable individual. Actually several individuals.  Brady has close friends, fellow riders, connected in a professional and spiritual sense. They gather around a fire to sing, to drink, and to pray – tough guys with an unabashed spiritual dimension.

For Brady, it’s evident in the life he lives: his gift for connecting to horses (evident in a striking scene, captured by Zhao, of Brady taming a troublesome steed); his devotion to his autistic sister Lilly (Brady’s sister in real life), and to his friend Lane Scott, paralyzed by an accident.

Scott (another rider playing himself) has minimal use of his left hand, and uses it to signal advice to Brady regarding his injury: rub some dirt in it, dude. It’s part of their cowboy/Indian masculine ethos. Buddies urge Brady to tough it out and get back on the horse – to “cowboy up.”

For Brady, that might be suicidal, and the movie leads slowly to the moment when Brady must decide to ride or to live.

Brady, though, is connected to his life, to his injured friend, to his sister. “I’ll take care of you,” he says to Lilly, and you know he means it.

MOVIES

The Rider

  • Directed by Chloe Zhao. With Brady Jandreau, Lilly Jandreau, Tim Jandreau and Lane Scott. Distributed by Sony Pictures Classics.
  • Running time: 1 hour, 44 mins.
  • Parent's guide: R (language)
  • Playing at: Ritz Five