TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. I just saw a pretty remarkable film, called "The Rider," about a Native American rodeo rider and horse trainer who's recovering from a harrowing rodeo accident and might no longer be able to ride again. You won't know the people in the cast. They're not professional actors. They're all playing slightly fictionalized versions of themselves.
We're going to be joined by the film's star, Brady Jandreau, who was badly injured in a rodeo accident, and the film's writer-director, Chloe Zhao. Zhao is a Chinese-born, U.S.-based filmmaker who shot this film and her 2015 film "Songs My Brothers Taught Me" on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota. Before we meet them, let's hear film critic Justin Chang's review of "The Rider."
JUSTIN CHANG, BYLINE: "The Rider" is a stunningly lyrical contemporary Western, a hymn to the beauty of endless prairies, majestic sunsets and strapping young men on horseback. But the filmmaker, Chloe Zhao, doesn't drown the myth of the American cowboy in Hollywood gloss. She strips it down to its raw, aching essence. She steeps us in the rhythms of life on South Dakota's Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, where young Lakota men wear chaps and Stetsons and harbor dreams of rodeo stardom.
Zhao was directing her first feature, "Songs My Brothers Taught Me," when she met Brady Jandreau, a bronco rider of Lakota descent. Jandreau was well on his way to becoming a rodeo legend until April 2016 when a serious riding accident left him with a near-fatal head wound. Shortly afterward, Zhao began filming him and his friends and family, piecing together a story about a cowboy's tough physical and emotional recovery. The result is a seamless, collaborative merging of narrative and documentary storytelling in which every scene, even when heightened for dramatic effect, has a bone-deep authenticity.
As the movie opens, Brady Blackburn, as he's been renamed here, has just discharged himself from the hospital and is peeling off his surgical bandages. He has a steel plate in his head and a long gash running down his scalp. He also has alarming seizures that cause his right hand to tighten up uncontrollably. But he has no intention of listening to his doctors, who have warned him against ever riding again. Later that morning, he's practicing roping a dummy bronco outside his family's trailer home when his dad, Wayne, shows up.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE RIDER")
TIM JANDREAU: (As Wayne Blackburn) What the hell are you doing here? You're supposed to be up in the hospital. I seen Tanner at the bar. He said you escaped, huh?
BRADY JANDREAU: (As Brady Blackburn) Told you to check me out.
T. JANDREAU: (As Wayne Blackburn) Well, the doctor said you're supposed to stay up there. Give me a hug.
B. JANDREAU: (As Brady Blackburn) Why don't you go inside and sober up?
T. JANDREAU: (As Wayne Blackburn) Sober up? Let me see you rope that. Checking yourself out of the hospital like your Uncle Roddy. (Laughter). What the hell? Can't you rope anymore?
CHANG: That's Jandreau's real-life father, Tim, and you can hear the conflicting impulses in his gruff delivery - the clumsy, boozy affection, the impulse to scold his son for not listening to orders, but also to mock him for being damaged goods. It helps that the older Jandreau has a movie star's wily charisma, and he's passed that gift on to his son. Brady Jandreau may be playing a fictionalized version of himself, but few professionally trained actors could achieve the heartbreaking gravity that he packs into a single downward glance. No less than his horses, he's an extraordinarily magnetic camera subject.
Also playing herself is Lilly Jandreau, Brady's younger sister, who lovingly helped steer him through his recovery. She has Asperger's syndrome, and their mutual sense of protectiveness provides some of the film's warmest moments. Then there's Brady's close friend, Lane Scott, a former bull rider who's shown paralyzed and unable to speak due to a car crash in real life. Though, the movie doesn't specify, leaving us to assume another riding accident. Either way, Scott remains a spirited optimist, telling Brady in sign language to throw some dirt on his wound and not give up.
Zhao doesn't reduce her actors to their disabilities or milk their setbacks for easy emotions. Working with the cinematographer Joshua James Richards, she captures the feel of everyday life in this community with an almost unbearable poignancy. She turns a simple drama of personal struggle into a wounding portrait of masculinity in crisis. Brady tries to move on, getting a job at a supermarket, and, at one point, almost pawning his saddle. But when we see him leading a horse around its enclosure, riding it, talking to it and praying over it, we see a man doing what he was clearly born to do. How do you carry on when the only dream you've ever known has been ripped away?
Zhao captures the exhilarating sense of liberation that rodeo riders must feel, even if only for eight seconds at a time. But she also conveys how few other options there are for a community whose traditions have been codified into ritual. At times, she makes these wide open plains feel downright claustrophobic. "The Rider" may be a movie about someone literally trying to get back on that horse, but there's also a subtler metaphor at work. Throughout the movie, we see Brady repeatedly using his good hand to assist his injured one, prying open his clenched grip. It's a fitting, heartbreaking image for the pain and necessity of letting go.
GROSS: Justin Chang is a film critic for The LA Times. "The Rider" opens Friday in New York and LA and will continue opening in other cities over the next few weeks. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.