“Cowboy up,” they say. It is a call to “play” through the pain. We’ve all heard it, in other sports (and sometimes war) movies, some of us in real life. Sometimes it comes out “man up,” or “toughen up,” or “walk it off,” or probably dozens of other variations. In Chloe Zhao’s THE RIDER Brady Blackburn (played by Brady Jandreau in basically his life story) faces the biggest “cowboy up” of his young life. A rodeo rider who suffers a near fatal accident when a horse crushes his head, Brady must decide whether to continue to follow his dream, to “cowboy up” despite the seriousness of his injury, or to take the advice of his doctors, not to mention the wishes of his father and sister (played by Jandreau’s real life father and sister), and retire from rodeo riding and horse training forever.
The stage is set for innumerable sports movie cliches, but Zhao has no interest in pursuing a straight forward sports film so when the moments arise where cliche would seem primed to take over, she sidesteps them with naturalness and authenticity. An early example of this comes when Brady’s friends (played again by the real life people), wake him up to go to the desert for a bonfire and male bonding. This is the first time any of them has seen his injury. They are all stunned by its appearance and try to give Brady the requisite hard time, but instead of succumbing to that pressure, which is what most sports films would have him do, he doesn’t even run with them when they are goofing around and call for him to join. Later, sitting around the fire, a friend tries, with little enthusiasm, to play the “cowboy up” card as they all tell stories about various injuries. They know that this situation is different though. They don’t say it but it’s on all their faces. Brady’s puts it simply when he states, “the brain is a lot different than ribs.”
What follows is a thoughtful, quiet film about one man’s journey to come to terms with drastic change and the loss of a dream. One of the side effects of Brady’s injury are, he learns later, a series of seizures, of which the main visual symptom is a clenching of his fist and an inability to release it. He literally has to pry his fingers apart. It is as good a metaphor as I can imagine for Brady’s situation; his passion for rodeo is so all encompassing, so much a part of who he is, he simply can’t let go. He must suffer setbacks born of his stubborness and love before he can see the truth of his new life. A great help in realizing this comes from his best friend Lane Scott (also playing himself), who also suffered a near fatal injury, one that has left him partially paralized and unable to speak. The two communicated by sign language when Brady visit the facility where Lane lives and receives treatment.
It is clear that Zhao has a special touch with non-actors (I’ve since seen her debut feature, SONGS MY BROTHERS TAUGHT ME, a film about life on an Native American reservation and it is equally moving and adept at using non-actors) and the complex interplay between fictionalization and reality. At any moment a film of this kind is in danger of becoming too much a documentary or exaggerating or embellishing reality to the point of detrimental distortion. Zhao never falters. When she needs moments of reality like the aforementioned campfire scene or the visits with Lane, she intuits the natural power of these moments and doesn’t intrude with the camera but steps back and lets that power speak for itself. Conversely, when the film demands beauty in order to crystallize for us what it is that these young men love about their way of life, she creates that beauty effortlessly with classic western vistas, confident handheld work, and a way of shooting faces and reactions that allows her characters to be quiet and contemplative. I was reminded on more than one occasion of one of my favorite filmmakers, Werner Herzog, perhaps the reigning king of blurring the lines between reality and fiction. Zhao has tapped into his search for “ecstatic truth” and come away with two amazingly graceful films.
Next up for Zhao? Marvel of course. That’s not a typo. Zhao is currently filming THE ETERNALS , the second film (after BLACK WIDOW) in phase four of the MCU. I can’t imagine what Zhao’s going to bring. To go from no budget, non actor, on location films to working with some of the biggest names in Hollywood with a Disney budget, on stages and in front of a green-screen, it seems surreal. Whatever the outcome, and I’m speaking here as neither an MCU hater nor fanboy, I hope Zhao does not give too many years to Marvel. We don’t get a lot of legitimate cinematic poets these days and Zhao fits the bill in my book. It would be a shame to lose her completely to Hollywood so early in her career.