For her second feature, Chinese director Chloé Zhao returned to a place she first visited in 2015 – the South Dakota Badlands – to tell the (slightly fictionalized) story of a rodeo rider and horse trainer she's now turned into a movie star. “Historically, people go West when they feel lost," Zhao says in our interview. "I just took a trip there and the place immediately made sense to me.”
As she speaks about filming The Rider on and off the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, Brady Jandreau, her star, enters the room. Zhao voices her disapproval over the slim can of Red Bull he's drinking. Throughout the interview, the director maintains a maternal stance toward the young man, at times even wagging her finger in his direction.
The Rider runs parallel to that gesticulation, like a warning to young cowboys who risk their lives for the rush and the glory that comes from riding bulls and broncos. But the director's approach is never that obvious or patronizing.
Zhao sets an early scene in darkness. Her camera takes in the expansive prairie landscape until it settles on four young men sitting around a campfire. Three of them are joking around with each other, starting to raise hell on a Friday night – they’ve barely grown past their boyhood selves. The fourth is Jandreau, playing a character named Brady Blackburn.
When the camera focuses on him, the downward tilt of his face as he stares into the fire suggests that he’s both in the moment with his friends but also standing outside of it, contemplating his fate. As his friends holler and chase each other into the moonless night, Blackburn stays behind, drawing the audience in close to his point of view.
To sustain this sense of intimacy with him throughout the movie, Zhao says, “I was clean on him, and every time it goes to somebody else, it's always dirtied by him in the foreground. It's forever through Brady's perspective.”
The director chose him for the role after meeting many other cowboys. “I was looking for somebody who truly believes in his way of life. He has to convince me, and you, and a lot of people who lived very differently than the way he did," she says. "He believes in it, and he lives by it. It's hard to come by with young people today.”
Zhao establishes the central tension of The Rider early. We watch as Blackburn removes a bloodied bandage from his head. And then, without much delicacy, he also plucks out the staples that have been holding the wound closed. Blackburn is recovering from a rodeo fall that takes place before the film starts.
At one point during the interview, Zhao mentions Darren Aronofsky’s The Wrestler as an analogous story. Mickey Rourke’s character risks his life when he returns to the ring; that irresistible pull back to something dangerous drives Zhao’s narrative as well.
Without being able to ride, Blackburn loses his connection to what makes him feel whole and alive. Jandreau, despite having suffered the same injury off-screen, says he still thinks about riding, even when Zhao raises her finger when the subject comes up. “I had a long break from rodeo even before the shooting began. I was thinking about maybe riding again once my bones even healed in my head,” he says. “I put a lot of thought into it, and it's not about really whether I ride or not, it's about the idea of doing it. It led me to almost everything I achieved today. I don't know, just going to rodeos, it put a bad taste in my mouth anymore, because I miss it so bad.”
In a dream sequence, Blackburn imagines a stabled horse pacing back and forth, restless for a ride. Talking about the scene triggers a reaction in Jandreau. He recounts a dream he had while he was in a coma after his own real-life accident: “I was a horse being trained.” While the nurses and doctors intubated him, they cut off his clothes and fitted him with a neck brace. He felt as if he was being saddled. He remembers feeling scared. In the dream, one of the hospital staff occupied Jandreau's own role as a horse trainer: “He was really calm, and pretty soon, he got on, and rode, and everything. I tried to buck him off. I remember it vividly. I had no control over myself. I had no sense that I was me.”
In The Rider, Zhao captures a natural affinity between human and animal spirits. The film is an expression of Jandreau’s joy and his pain. “I feel like I can identify with horses better than I can identify with people,” he says.
'The Rider' opens Friday, April 20 at Landmark Embarcadero in San Francisco.