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.