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How a Film About the Rodeo Became an Incisive Look at Masculinity and CTE

Chinese writer/director Chloe Zhao discusses ‘The Rider,’ her acclaimed new movie about South Dakota rodeo cowboys

In The Rider, a lovely and moving drama about the world of the rodeo in South Dakota, art imitates life — or at the very least, cribs heavily from it. Chinese writer-director Chloé Zhao made her first film, 2013’s Songs My Brothers Taught Me, about a handful of characters living on a Native American reservation, and during that time, she got to know Brady Jandreau, a 21-year-old member of the Lower Brule Sioux Tribe who trained horses and rode in the rodeo. In 2016, during an event in North Dakota, he suffered a horrific accident in which he was thrown from his horse. (The animal actually stepped on his head, putting him in a coma for several days.) Despite being warned that he should never ride again, Jandreau did anyway. Zhao realized she had the subject for her second film.

The Rider is a lightly fictionalized account of Jandreau’s life and world. Zhao chose to have him play the main character, who’s named Brady Blackburn, and several of his friends and family members are, essentially, portraying versions of themselves. Part of Zhao’s rationale was that, for a low-budget production, spending the time and money to teach actors to learn how to be expert horse trainers would have been impractical. But it also was a question of bringing authenticity to the characters she wanted to depict. “I just wanted to make an intimate film,” she says. “And when I met Brady, I realized that that’s somebody who can carry a movie on his back. I’m not gonna have all the other [big-budget] stuff, so I need to present something the audience wants to watch.”

Unlike the actual Jandreau, Brady Blackburn mostly stays off horses after his near-fatal accident — but as far as he’s concerned, he might as well be dead. Zhao understatedly examines how the accident has shattered his masculinity and left him feeling worthless. The rugged South Dakota landscape is shot gorgeously, but we see how few opportunities there are for young men in this environment: Without horses and the rodeo, what does he have?

Zhao combines fictional scenes with documentary-like footage of Jandreau as he trains horses, and along the way The Rider doesn’t just chronicle a vanishing way of life but also honors these people’s close connection with the land — a connection that’s being lost as we zoom toward an ever-increasingly technologically advanced society. In such a world, a man like Brady seems more and more like a dinosaur.

I recently spoke with Zhao about her emotional film and to find out what drew her to examining fragile masculinity. We also talked about the scary allure of horses; the rodeo’s culture of having to “man up”; and how the community is grappling with CTE.

You’ve said in interviews that The Rider explores masculinity, which is pretty clear to anyone who watches the movie. Is that a theme that interests you, or was there something about Jandreau that drew you to that subject?
Actually, when I said [the film is about] masculinity, that’s probably because I read reviews after the film screened and then I stole those very smart analyses to make myself sound smart.

But it’s actually really important to me — and I wouldn’t be able to do it any other way — to not go [into making a film] with an agenda. It’s an agenda that I do care about, but I think we have so many labels for each other these days: man, woman, cowboys, Chinese, whatever. I have to be able to relate to Brady as a human being first. All the details make him who I’m not, but the things that he has that I also have is the thing I’m interested in.

A lot of men define themselves by their work, and that seems especially true in the world of rodeo cowboys, which is such an old-fashioned, masculine profession. Was the fact that Brady has to give up his livelihood — the thing that defines him — fascinating to you, too?
I’m not an intellectual — I can’t intellectualize things. Even though [those themes] might be in me, I can’t process them in the way you just said it.

I’d known Brady for a year, and I don’t have children, but I feel very maternal toward him. I feel the pressure he must have felt growing up there and being around such a cult of masculinity — having to “man up.” And that’s just not specific to his experience — I think, in general, our culture puts a lot of pressure on men. In China, it’s the same. So, I feel bad for him.

I’ve seen the film twice, and both times the audience felt the way you did — his life is sort of a tragedy. But does Jandreau see the film that way?
There might be some therapeutic quality for him to see “Brady Blackburn” going through this thing. [Jandreau] always jokes that the footage of him getting stepped on by a horse [is on] a cellphone that’s now broken. So the only time he can see that accident now is watching the movie. It’s almost as if this happened to Brady Blackburn, but not Brady Jandreau.

I hope that he can see that there’s life after the rodeo. I think that he would admit that this way of life is disappearing. But I think he would see the film and think, I could see why I wanna continue doing this. Weeks after the head injury, he was back on a horse.

Head injuries are such a personalized, individual experience, and one person’s is so different than another’s. But for Brady, even though it was risky to be back riding horses so quickly, he isn’t somebody who can stay alive [without riding horses] for too long. It’s so important for him to maintain a sense of who he is. And so, even though I don’t want him to get hurt, I know that he has to get back on a horse.

In the film, the characters joke that if they were in the NFL, they’d have to retire because of all the concussions they’ve had. Football has really grappled with CTE — it’s profoundly shifted players’ and fans’ relationship with the game. Is that happening at all in the world of the rodeo?
There’s a huge [conversation]. Last year Professional Bull Riders [PBR], one of the largest rodeo organizations, lost one of their very beloved young riders. [Editor’s note: Ty Pozzobon committed suicide in 2017. Doctors later found evidence that he had developed CTE after suffering at least 12 concussions from riding.] So PBR has been reevaluating their protocols. We’re partnering with them through the movie.

Me and Brady were just in Albuquerque at a big event, and one rider did get a concussion and was knocked out. Eventually he got up, and I asked the people at PBR, “Will he ride tomorrow?” And they were like, “Well, we need to evaluate. If we think he has a concussion, he cannot ride.” Lane Frost, who that movie 8 Seconds is based on, was one of the greatest bull riders. He passed away [in 1989] because he wasn’t wearing a vest — there were no vests at the time. After his death, bull riders started wearing vests to protect their body. So yeah, [new protocols] are definitely on the way.

What’s interesting, though, is that The Rider’s characters know the danger but almost accept it like a badge of honor. In their mind, it shows how manly they are that they’re willing to face serious injury for their job. It’s a form of bragging rights.
There’s a layer of that, for sure. And that goes for the people who work on Wall Street or who own huge mansions in Beverly Hills — it’s just a different expression of “I wanna be a man” in our culture.

But there’s another layer, too. A young kid from, maybe, the projects who wants to play basketball — the culture is so much a part of that sport. It’s the same when you grew up in the Badlands — the rodeo comes out of the ranching lifestyle. People who work and live with animals — it’s part of their culture, [just like for] the kid who can’t give up playing basketball. It’s so much of who he is, and he doesn’t have other interests or opportunities.

So, for some people, it’s that “macho” thing. For other kids, it might be the only thing they have going for them.

I’ve always been terrified of horses — they’re beautiful, but I’m afraid to get close to one. The Rider has these incredible scenes of Jandreau training horses — he and the animals have this intimate, powerful connection.
I appreciate that you admit [to being terrified], because most people romanticize horses. They think they’re just like a Yorkie. [laughs] You should be scared. I’m scared, too. I was reminded of that when I sat on one, and then you’re like, “Oh shit, they’re very powerful animals.” If he chooses to carry you, he can do it so quick. He’s also extremely smart. There’s no way one-on-one you could break a horse. The horse doesn’t let you.

For Brady to stand in that corral — to survive and establish respect with the young, wild horses — that’s something I’ve never seen before. I see horses as being as close to nature — the danger of nature — as a lion. But they’re also the closest to being domesticated, although not as domestic as a dog. That’s an amazing range. So when you see someone who can achieve that connection [with a horse], you feel, “Oh wow, that’s probably as close to the wildness of nature as you can get” — to be able to ride a horse and communicate with it.

It must be an incredible high for him — I can see what the appeal would be for a guy’s ego.
I think Brady would say, “I have to sell to the horse what I want him to do.” That’s appealing to him. And I think it’s almost like dating. [laughs] I’ve lived in New York for 12 years, and I’ve spent a lot of time in bars meeting people and going to events. You get a high when you first get to know somebody — you want to form some kind of connection in a very lonely world. And when you’re out there in [a desolate place like] South Dakota, you can have a connection with people, but you spend most of your time with animals, at least for Brady. So that connection is what he needs to feed his soul. It’s not even just something to do to make money.

The Rider wonders what will become of Brady if he decides to walk away from the rodeo — there aren’t a lot of promising prospects in that environment. In real life, what happens to the Bradys?
Most of them stay on the reservation. We’re not so different: They will pay for what they do in their 20s and their 30s, both physically and emotionally [just like me]. You make your choices a certain way when you’re young, and then you have to learn from your mistakes. Then you see which way you come out.

But not many of them move away, and that was important for me to show. There’s a sense that you could achieve some kind of peace and balance, staying behind, because not everyone could go out there [into the world]. My first film was sort of about exploring what it’s like if someone cannot leave. This one is more like, “What is it like if someone will not leave?” Some young people are trapped, and some young people feel like they belong there. We have to learn to respect and understand that.