“I’m useless if I can’t do what I was born to do.” – Brady Jandreau
In 2016, Brady Jandreau was thrown from the bronco he was riding in a rodeo in Fargo, ND, and the bucking horse stomped on his skull, causing severe brain damage, and plunging him into a coma. He awoke three days later with health complications that linger on. His doctors told him to give up riding, but riding and working with horses is all he knows. He’s gifted in this regard, and without horses, he has very little.
Fair-skinned and taught-muscled with a dark, jaw-line beard, a fine mustache, and sharp eyes narrowed by hunting for sustenance in the South Dakota badlands, Brady is every bit the prototypical cowboy, the kind of guy who’s not whole unless he’s wearing his broad-brimmed, heat-formed hat. But Brady’s identity is not simple. He’s also a member of the Lower Brule Sioux Tribe, and he and his friends, also rodeo riders, always put feathers in their hats to tie them to their Lakota ancestry. Cowboys and “Indians” all at once, as natively American as one can be, and putting their lives on the line to live up to the ideal of the rugged American man every time they saddle a bronco or a bull.
The Rider, Chinese-American filmmaker Chloé Zhao’s accomplished sophomore feature, lightly fictionalizes Brady’s life in the months immediately after his injury. Brady plays himself. His father and sister and friends and community members play themselves as well. Zhao and her small filmmaking team shot the film in the community’s homes and corrals and the jagged badlands of their Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in south-western South Dakota. The Rider is a remarkably beautiful, compassionate, tough film that straddles the line between “has been” and “becoming,” that wonders who we are if we are not able to do what we feel made to do, a film that reckons the courage required, by the individual and by the individual’s community, to make that leap of identity into something new when the old is no longer possible.
As Brady’s injury shows, he and his friends’ attempts to live up to the ideal image of a Man is not without great cost. In an elliptic scene around a campfire, Brady and his friend recount the various ways they’ve been injured on broncos and bulls. Brady’s best friend, Lane, has been almost completely paralyzed in a rodeo accident. Brady visits him in the hospital throughout the film in a series of scenes not often included in films concerned with masculinity.
I was reminded of the sober sentimentality of the post-war films of William Wyler and John Huston mixed with the affecting realism of Hal Ashby and the attention to professional detail of Michael Mann, but Zhao proves more patient than any of them. Action follows feeling in her film. She lets the story be about the emotional arc Brady follows as his body and spirit heal. Action doesn’t precipitate the emotional leaps. Action in Zhao’s film is the result of emotional leaps already taken. For example, a dream sequence, the cinematic representation of emotional work being done, begins the film, and Brady’s actions follow from there. His heart leads him back to the horse. Encountering a horse does not lead him back to his heart.
This difference is essential, because the core question of the film has to do with identity and calling. Brady is struggling with who he essentially is if he isn’t able to do what he knows how to do. He’s looking for an identity deeper than that rooted in action. This is an essential question for all of us. So much of who we are is tied up in what we do, and losing the physical or mental ability to work is traumatic beyond the physical trial of an injury itself. I think about this a lot. I’m afraid of losing the ability to do the work I do. I wonder what it means for us to tie so much of our theology to the idea of calling, since doing so ties identity to work. If to be fully human means to be “about my Father’s business,” are the disabled and the elderly and those unable to work for other reasons less than human? Of course not, but we do a poor job of articulating a concept of God-blessed identity that isn’t dependent on vocation.
Maybe it’s not a matter of finding a concept of identity that’s completely divorced from the concept of work. Maybe it’s a matter of expanding what we value as worthwhile work for all people, regardless of physical ability, gender, or economic status. A personal sense of purpose is important, but so is society’s affirmation of that purpose. There’s something there, and The Rider is on to it.