One might expect an interrogation of nostalgia in an American movie set among rodeo riders of South Dakota, but Chloé Zhao’s second film, The Rider, avoids grand questions about the status of American myths. Instead, Zhao grounds her setting of a dwindling cowboy culture in a humble and intimate story of a young injured rider, Brady (Brady Jandreau), during his pride-bruised recovery. Tying his identity to the cowboy ethos—not the thrill, the money, or the fame, but something deeper, if more vague—and with his mother dead, his father an old cowboy (Tim Jandreau) softened by drink and age, and a clique of comrades whose culture is to man up, Brady has few people he can tell of his worries. The lonesomeness of the Western hero becomes the simple shame of a young man not able to do what he thinks is expected of him, what he's built his satisfaction around. So he broods, eyes hooded, face turned down, and goes about his recovery: yearning to ride, sweetly tending to others’ horses, and venting only to his handicapped sister (Lilly Jandreau), whose bright, forthright perception and manner seems to suggest the inner peace Brady doesn't know he could achieve off of a bronco.
The Rider's will-he-ride-or-won't-he-ride-again story is almost precariously lean and straight-forward, and neither as psychologically dense as Nick Ray’s The Lusty Men (1952), nor as rough hewn (or self-inflated) as Peckinpah and Steve McQueen’s Junior Bonner (1972). Lost ways or a dying culture are not suggested, which gives the film an odd sense of either being somewhat abstract—despite its marvelous details of look and lifestyle of the rural milieu—or the sense of truly showing a society healthier than outsiders like myself may presume. Sparked and inspired by Brady's real life (a member of the Lakota Sioux tribe, his own family also plays the character's family and the film was shot on the Pine Ridge reservation), what the film does have is a resolute sensitivity, Zhao’s approach being one of intimacy and considerate attention, the casual sensuality of everyday life, and unspoken but well-felt relationships. The Rider is a film where every actor hums with character and poignancy, a history behind each appearance and a settled weight in the world. And among them also struggles Brady, suffuse in the loneliness of pride. This is a fine film indeed, free in its saddled legacy, riding with sincerity and simplicity.