Chloe Zhao’s ‘The Rider’ Is a Welcome Antidote to the Age of Donald Trump

Zhao’s unorthodox Western is one of the year’s best movies, and the story behind its production sends a strong message.

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A little over two years ago, Chloe Zhao was in the badlands of South Dakota, working with a crew of five people and no professional actors, shooting real-life cowboys. The end result, “The Rider,” changed her life.

Her naturalistic Western, about a rodeo rider named Brady (Brady Jandreau) who suffers a debilitating head injury, won the top prize at Cannes’ Directors Fortnight section in 2017 and scored distribution with Sony Pictures Classics. It landed a Best Film nomination from the Independent Spirit Awards in early 2018, before it even hit theaters, and closes the year out with a Gotham nomination in the same category. And Zhao suddenly found herself in the unlikely position of fielding studio offers, one of which she accepted — Marvel’s “The Eternals,” a superhero movie about immortal beings.

So much has happened that Zhao, who grew up in Beijing and moved to the U.S. as a teenager, still can’t process it. “We made this film without anybody knowing about it,” she said in a phone interview. “I was very nervous because I wasn’t sure how people would react to someone in a cowboy hat.”

This has been a crucial aspect of “The Rider” that has allowed it to linger as a critical favorite in year-end discussions over a year after it first generated heat: As America reels from one of the most divisive chapters in its history, and artistic communities recede to cosmopolitan bubbles, one of the year’s most celebrated breakouts presents an unorthodox collision of worlds — a Chinese immigrant sets her gaze on the nation’s oldest genre, and finds renewed intimacy in its depths.

To that end, Zhao has become the ultimate cause celebre of the film community, and “The Rider” provides an antidote to Trumpian ignorance even if its existence predated the concept. She may be a long shot for Best Director in this year’s Oscar race, but the degree of admiration she found from contemporaries supersedes the value of any potential trophies. Above all, the movie represents a kind of collaboration at odds with the current historical moment.

“I think ‘The Rider’ became the type of film it is because of a man and a woman, because the two of us wanted to work together and understand where we were coming from,” Zhao said.

The movie presents its sweeping, empty landscapes and wistful characters as hovering in a perpetual state of melancholy, as Brady contends with the possibility that he must turn his back on horseback riding for good. In his insular world of yawning skies and windswept fields, divorced from politics, the endless cascade of media and technology, the idea of retiring from his field comes like a death sentence. Zhao burrows into that aspect of Brady’s struggle to reveal a man coming to grips with emotions he’s suppressed his whole life. The simplicity of his milieu has made it easy to ignore the big questions. “The Rider” depicts the process of waking up to the wider world for the first time. “There’s a feminine and a masculine side to everyone,” Zhao said. “There are times that we don’t feel comfortable showing one of those.”

"The Rider" Score Composer Nathan Halpern

“The Rider”

Sony Pictures Classics

Zhao’s movie gained currency by the end of 2016, as the results of the presidential election drove conversations about the influx of conservative voters in rural America. In South Dakota, Donald Trump took 65 percent of the vote. “I think it’s a shame that people never paid attention to the heartland,” Zhao said. “After the election, people have been paying such negative attention to it. I’ve seen Brady connecting with audiences at Sundance, at SXSW, in France. I don’t know what it could, but for me, humanizing a person in a cowboy hat is righting the boat a little bit.”

Zhao never approached the movie in political terms. She first came across Jandreau while working on her directorial debut, “Songs My Brothers Taught Me,” on a Native American reservation. She was drawn to his James Dean-like features, which seemed at odds with the tenderness he brought to his relationship with animals.

“I just couldn’t stop saying I want to make a film about Brady,” she said. “I didn’t have a message I wanted to convey. I just wanted to put him on screen, somehow.” The reception to “The Rider” around the world has reverberated on the Pine Ridge Oglala Lakota Reservation, where Jandreau grew up. (Members of his family, including his father and his sister, also appear in the movie.) “The community is very moved by it,” Zhao said. But Jandreau receded from the spotlight after the initial wave of attention at festivals. “I hope he has a career as an actor, because I think he’s incredible,” Zhao said. “But when these people they go home, they forget about going to Cannes or Sundance or any awards. They jump straight back to the corral. They have horses to train.”

Zhao herself approached the wave of interest from studios with caution. “‘The Rider’ got a lot of attention when a lot of people were looking for female directors,” she said. “I had to make sure when projects were offered to me, that it was actually because they wanted me. It wasn’t really difficult for me to say no until the right project came around.”

She managed to shoot an under-the-radar project with Frances McDormand this year, but declined to offer details about it. As for “The Eternals,” she insisted that despite the weighty expectations of franchise filmmaking, she settled on an opportunity consistent with her experience to date. “When I grew up in China, I didn’t really have a lot of access to film,” she said. “The first creative storytelling I encountered was Japanese manga. I wanted to be a manga artist for the longest time. I didn’t draw very well. But comic books and animation were always a passion of mine. It wasn’t a huge part of the dialogue at film school. I was very curious to get into that.”

She cited Werner Herzog as a key influence on her filmmaking approach (“I often ask myself, ‘What would Werner do?’”) but fellow Chinese immigrant Ang Lee has been her gold standard for ages. “Ang Lee’s career has been very inspiring to me — how he’s able to bring where he comes from to all the films that he makes,” she said. When she was a film student at NYU, Lee visited to give a lecture, and she was too shy to approach him.

“I’m still learning about this process,” she said. “As directors, our voices are being heard more than ever before, but we need to be seen as individuals. It’s going to take time.”

Marvel’s ‘The Eternals’ Finds Its Director in ‘The Rider’ Helmer Chloé Zhao

“The Rider” has emerged as one of the most acclaimed films of the year.

After making one of the most acclaimed films of the year with “The Rider,” Chloé Zhao is set to take on a considerably larger project: Marvel’s “The Eternals.” She’ll become just the second woman to helm a film for the studio, as next year’s “Captain Marvel” is co-directed by Anna Boden; the first 20 movies, from “Iron Man” and “Avengers: Infinity War” to “Guardians of the Galaxy” and “Thor: Ragnarok,” all come from male directors.

“The Eternals” leans toward the stranger end of the Marvel spectrum, taking place millions of years in the past and concerning cosmic beings called Celestials whose experiments on humans result in both heroes and villains with supernatural abilities. It’s a far cry from the subject of Zhao’s breakout film, which premiered at Sundance last year and was nominated for four Independent Spirit Awards (including Best Feature and Best Director). One imagines that “The Eternals” will also have an exponentially larger budget than “The Rider,” which has grossed just over $3 million at the box office.

The film has yet to receive a release date but will be written by Matthew and Ryan Firpo, with Marvel head Kevin Fiege once again producing. Marvel has had an especially good year, with “Black Panther” making $1.3 billion and “Infinity War” crossing the $2 billion mark, and its next release is “Captain Marvel.”

‘Eternals:’ Marvel Studios Sets Chloe Zhao to Direct

Marvel Studios has tapped “The Rider” director Chloe Zhao to direct “The Eternals,” a movie based on the comic book series about an evolutionary offshoot of humanity, an individual with knowledge of the project told TheWrap.

Blacklist screenwriters Matthew and Ryan Firpo (“Ruin”) are writing the script. Marvel Studios Chief Kevin Feige is producing.

So what are the “Eternals?” Created by comic legend Jack Kirby in 1976, the “Eternals”  are a race of ancient human beings created a million years ago by the cosmic entities known as the Celestials.

Also Read: Marvel Boss Kevin Feige Confirms ‘Eternals’ Movie in Development (Exclusive)

According to ComicVine, the Celestials accelerated the evolution of a handful of subjects and gave them the genetic potential to mentally manipulate limited quantities of cosmic energy, as well as other superhuman traits.

The story will focus on the female Eternal known as Sersi, (no, not the character on “Game of Thrones”), several insiders have told TheWrap.

“We have started working on what are the films post-phase 3,” Feige previously told TheWrap, referencing the forthcoming fourth part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s slate of movies after the wind-down of franchises based on the original Avengers.

Also Read: ‘Conan’ Recuts ‘Captain Marvel’ Trailer, Really Leans in to the Blockbuster Scene (Video)

But Feige still has a whole lot of work to do on the current MCU phase, telling TheWrap that most of the studio’s current efforts are going into finishing “Captain Marvel,” as well as editing an untitled Avengers film.

Zhao is best known for her well-reviewed Sundance breakout “The Rider.”

Zhao is repped by WME and Lichter Grossman Nichols Adler & Feldman.

Related stories from TheWrap:

Marvel Female Heroes Series From ‘Wonder Woman’ Writer in the Works at ABC

Marvel Studios Chief Kevin Feige to Receive BAFTA’s Albert R. Broccoli Britannia Award

Loki, Scarlet Witch, More Marvel Characters to Get Standalone Shows on Disney Streaming Service

Marvel Studios has tapped “The Rider” director Chloe Zhao to direct “The Eternals,” a movie based on the comic book series about an evolutionary offshoot of humanity, an individual with knowledge of the project told TheWrap.

Blacklist screenwriters Matthew and Ryan Firpo (“Ruin”) are writing the script. Marvel Studios Chief Kevin Feige is producing.

So what are the “Eternals?” Created by comic legend Jack Kirby in 1976, the “Eternals”  are a race of ancient human beings created a million years ago by the cosmic entities known as the Celestials.

According to ComicVine, the Celestials accelerated the evolution of a handful of subjects and gave them the genetic potential to mentally manipulate limited quantities of cosmic energy, as well as other superhuman traits.

The story will focus on the female Eternal known as Sersi, (no, not the character on “Game of Thrones”), several insiders have told TheWrap.

“We have started working on what are the films post-phase 3,” Feige previously told TheWrap, referencing the forthcoming fourth part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s slate of movies after the wind-down of franchises based on the original Avengers.

But Feige still has a whole lot of work to do on the current MCU phase, telling TheWrap that most of the studio’s current efforts are going into finishing “Captain Marvel,” as well as editing an untitled Avengers film.

Zhao is best known for her well-reviewed Sundance breakout “The Rider.”

Zhao is repped by WME and Lichter Grossman Nichols Adler & Feldman.

Related stories from TheWrap:

Marvel Female Heroes Series From 'Wonder Woman' Writer in the Works at ABC

Marvel Studios Chief Kevin Feige to Receive BAFTA's Albert R. Broccoli Britannia Award

Loki, Scarlet Witch, More Marvel Characters to Get Standalone Shows on Disney Streaming Service

‘The Rider’ Director Chloé Zhao Lands Marvel’s ‘The Eternals’

The Rider helmer Chloe Zhao is attached to helm Marvel’s Jack Kirby-created The Eternals, Deadline has confirmed.

She will helm off Matthew and Ryan Firpo’s screenplay. Kevin Feige is producing.

The comic centered around the super power …

The Rider helmer Chloe Zhao is attached to helm Marvel’s Jack Kirby-created The EternalsDeadline has confirmed. She will helm off Matthew and Ryan Firpo’s screenplay. Kevin Feige is producing. The comic centered around the super power near-god beings The Celestials and their villainous adversaries the Deviants in a war set millions of years ago. The Celestials experimented on humans creating both races of immortal spin-offs. The Eternals debuted as a comic in July…

Marvel’s ‘The Eternals’ Taps ‘The Rider’ Director Chloe Zhao

After earning critical acclaim for her Sundance darling “The Rider,” director Chloe Zhao looks ready to step up to the big leagues as the up and coming director has been set to direct “The Eternals” for Marvel. Matthew and Ryan …

After earning critical acclaim for her Sundance darling “The Rider,” director Chloe Zhao looks ready to step up to the big leagues as the up and coming director has been set to direct “The Eternals” for Marvel. Matthew and Ryan Firpo are on board to pen the script with Marvel president Kevin Feige producing. Created […]

‘The Rider’ Director Chloé Zhao Treats Non-Actors Like Pros: ‘Once Upon a Time, Our Greatest Actors Were Discovered’ – Podcast

Zhao said with her Bass Reeves biopic, she’ll direct a more traditional cast like she did with her first-timers: “You can work with an actor in a certain way, you can create an environment like Terrence Malick has always done.”

Chloé Zhao’s breakout second feature film, “The Rider,” is based on the real life of the film’s star Brady Jandreau – a young rodeo rider who, after suffering a massive brain injury while competing, faces an existential crisis about his place in this world. In the film, Jandreau draws on his life experiences and is surrounded by a cast of his real-life family and friends, but his quiet and introspective character (Brady Blackburn) is the polar opposite of his real-life personality.

“Brady Blackburn is very somber, Brandy Jandreau isn’t – he’s the happy kid trying to make everyone laugh,” said Zhao when she was guest on IndieWire’s Filmmaker Toolkit Podcast. “When I first saw him, I didn’t speak to him. I was in the basement and he walked in and I just immediately thought, what a great face and the camera was going to love his face.”

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Not only did Jandreau have a presence, he was incredibly present. In the film, Zhao captures in documentary-like fashion, how Jandreau, a talented horse trainer, is able to convert a bucking, out-of-control animal into a rideable horse. “I thought if you could do that to a horse, that’s wild, maybe you could do it to other people and the audience,” said Zhao. “To have that sharp focus and be able to communicate with [horses] to get their trust is the type of presence [I’m] looking for in professionals and non-professionals [on] set and. Give me those spontaneous moments, because they are completely present and not thinking about a script or anything.”

Zhao’s first feature, “Songs My Brothers Taught Me,” also utilized first-time performers – mixed with three established actresses – from the same South Dakota reservation where she met Jandreau, but she insists that too much is made of what is takes to get a big-screen performance from those who have never done it before.

Read More: ‘The Rider’ Director Chloé Zhao to Helm Biopic About Bass Reeves, the First Black U.S. Marshall, for Amazon Studios

“There’s not much difference how I look at actors and non-actors, because [the] way to discover a great actor once upon a time – it use to be someone you meet, ‘Oh, wow, maybe you should act,'” said Zhao. “Now these days a lot of people go to school for it and [so many] people are trying to get into it, but there was a time when some of our greatest actors were discovered, like Brady.”

“The Rider”

Sony Pictures Classics

Zhao has two films in development, one set 3,000 years in the future, and the other a 1800s biopic about Bass Reeves (the first black U.S. marshal) that she hopes to shoot before the end of the year. Neither project obviously allows her to cast her real-life subjects, like she did in her first two films, but even in going through a more traditional casting process, she insists she’ll work with bigger name professionals the way she did with Jandreau.

“You can work with an actor in a certain way, you can create an environment like Terrence Malick has always done, so your actors can give you a very similar thing you get from a non-actors,” said Zhao.

The theatrical release of “The Rider” expands nationally today.

The Filmmaker Toolkit podcast is available on Apple Podcasts, OvercastStitcherSoundCloud and Google Play Music. Previous episodes include:

The music used in this podcast is from the “Marina Abramovic: The Artist is Present” score, courtesy of composer Nathan Halpern.

You can check out the rest IndieWire’s podcasts in iTunes.

Marvel Wants to Hire Indie Directors, But a Lot of Them Don’t Fit the Gigs — Analysis

While directors such as Chloé Zhao and Ben Wheatley surface in reports about new Marvel projects, they might be better off doing other things.

At first, it felt like a fluke: Filmmakers working outside the studio system, telling original stories made on their own terms, lured into the superhero arena where final cut doesn’t exist. It began with Marc Webb, snatched up by Sony to direct “The Amazing Spider-Man” and its sequel after his Sundance breakout “(500) Days of Summer.” Within a couple of years, filmmakers ranging from James Gunn (“Guardians of the Galaxy”) to Patty Jenkins (“Wonder Woman”) to Taika Waititi (“Thor: Ragnarok”) catapulted beyond personal cinematic pursuits to lend their talents to the comic book craze.

That approach yielded mixed results for the “Star Wars” universe, which reportedly took “Rogue One” away from director Gareth Edwards and fired original “Solo” directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller, but the phenomenal popularity of “Black Panther” elevated yet another Sundance discovery, 31-year-old Ryan Coogler, to Spielbergian heights. That movie arrived just a few months after “Spider-Man: Homecoming” brought “Cop Car” genre director Jon Watts into the big leagues. There’s more to come: “Avengers: Infinity War” ends by teasing “Captain Marvel,” the blockbuster debut from “Half Nelson” co-directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck.

As Marvel combs through agency lists of promising filmmakers and more young filmmakers turn to Marvel gigs, the trend risks calcifying into tradition — or, worse, a rite of passage. It was only a matter of time before the speculation wheel landed on British filmmaker Ben Wheatley, best known for dark comedies like “A Field in England,” “Sightseers,” and “Free Fire” that include fun, fast-paced action and zany twists. Last week, reports circulated that Wheatley had been offered a “big Marvel film,” but the filmmaker shot down the story with a succinct email to IndieWire. “You heard it here first,” he wrote. “It’s totally not true.”

And just as “Infinity War” saw its first box office numbers, reports circulated about a “Black Widow” spinoff that had Marvel meeting a range of women filmmakers. Among them was Chloé Zhao of “The Rider,” which won a top prize at Cannes and an Independent Spirit Award nomination for her an understated look at a South Dakota bronco rider. It doesn’t suggest anything like the ass-kicking spy played by Scarlett Johansson in six Marvel movies.

For now, Zhao fans don’t have to worry about an abrupt change of direction. A representative for the Chinese-American filmmaker told IndieWire that for the time being, Zhao was too busy with another project to commit to the Marvel gig. Other sources close to the meetings said the studio met with a range of women directors with indie backgrounds, including Turkey’s Deniz Gamze Erguven (“Mustang”), but decided “to go back to the drawing board” and reassess the approach. (Marvel declined to comment.)

As Marvel’s ambitions continue to expand, so do reports of rising filmmakers stepping into the arena. The opportunities are out there — but even now, with some success stories on the table, not every talented director should take the paycheck.

Dazed and Confused

“Dazed and Confused”

Gramercy Pictures

Once upon a time, filmmakers who broke out on the festival circuit could take a half step up. After capturing a generation with “Slacker,” Richard Linklater scored a Universal gig directing “Dazed and Confused” in 1993. He made the iconic high school movie for $6.9 million and it flopped theatrically. It wasn’t a huge loss for the studio or Linklater, who got the chance to work within studio boundaries while developing an original idea. In today’s tentpole-driven times, opportunities for middle-class commercial filmmaking are virtually extinct: A filmmaker who makes a compelling debut will be tapped for a blockbuster, or not at all.

For some, Marvel could provide an ideal platform for visionary directors who want to toy with massive resources without risking everything. With the massive world-building that ties each movie into the next, one bad experience can’t tarnish the whole show. Some directors embrace the opportunity: Taika Waititi, who forged a comedic filmmaker persona with “Boy” and “What We Do in the Shadows,” made a seamless transition with “Thor: Ragnarok,” fusing his goofy narrative instincts with the broader commercial agenda.

“At the very beginning, I was thinking, ‘Do I want to ruin my track record?’” Waititi told me last fall. “Then I realized, ‘What have I really built?’ I’ve done four films. Here’s an opportunity to make a movie superhero movie, to play with some cool, big toys, to do something that I never dreamed I could do. I figured I may never get an opportunity like this again.”

However, Waititi’s ebullient, crowd-pleasing style seemed like a natural fit for a filmmaking challenge designed to please mass audiences. Zhao, whose “The Rider” gains traction at the box office as it expands across the country, makes gentle, character-driven stories about hidden corners of the American frontier (among her projects is an Amazon-produced biopic about Bass Reeves, the first black U.S. deputy marshal). She could juggle the mayhem of a Marvel production schedule, but that doesn’t mean she should.

Taika Waititi'Thor: Ragnarok' film premiere, Arrivals, New York, USA - 30 Oct 2017

Taika Waititi at the “Thor: Ragnarok” New York City film premiere

Lipson/BFA/REX/Shutterstock

For many writer-directors, the most attractive possibility after making one lauded movie is to make another one just like it. When it comes to studio gigs, “Hereditary” director Ari Aster told me, “I’m not interested. It’s fun to get these offers, but I’ve got so many films I want to make.”

Other filmmakers see the challenge as a threat to the creative momentum they’ve only begun to discover. “It all becomes about how much movement I have,” said Ana Lily Amirpour in an interview with IndieWire shortly after her black-and-white vampire drama “A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night” came out in 2014. “I can’t be constricted.” Instead of hiring an agent and lining up a commercial gig, she went out to the desert and made cannibal love story “The Bad Batch” off another original script.

“I have control of all parts,” she said at the time. “I’m happy to be in that situation. It’s not about if it’s this much money or that much money … It becomes three to five years of your life. Do I really want to suffer? What’s the point? It’s gotta mean something to me.”

‘The Rider’: How Composer Nathan Halpern Captured the Fragile Mental State of a Broken Cowboy – Watch

Composer Nathan Halpern explains how he collaborated with director Chloé Zhao to create a score that balanced the hybrid film’s mix of cinema vérité and a modern western.

Composer Nathan Halpern has scored dozens of the best documentaries of the last four years, including Sundance winner “Rich Hill” and the upcoming Netflix release “Joan Didion: The Center Will not Hold.” Halpern’s latest film, director Chloé Zhao’s “The Rider,” drew upon his experiences working in both nonfiction and narrative films. The Cannes breakout – one of the best reviewed film of 2018 – “The Rider” tells the real-life story of rodeo cowboy Brady Jandreau (the film stars Jandreau and his real-life family and friends) who finds new purpose in his life after suffering a massive brain injury.

IndieWire asked Halpern to take us through his collaboration with Zhao in creating a subtle, but deeply moving score that bridges the film’s mix of cinema vérité and a modern western.

In creating the musical score for “The Rider,” our primary intent was to help bring the audience into the emotional point of view of the film’s protagonist. I spoke extensively with director Chloé Zhao about the nuances of Brady’s physical and emotional experiences, and she guided me through her vision of Brady’s experience in great detail.

Working from this framework of the character’s inner life – itself based in part on Brady’s real-life experiences – we developed a palette of sounds and musical motifs from which to score the film. The film is very sparing in its use of the musical score, an approach that Chloé was quite clear on from the outset. Musical scoring generally occurs only in the more explicitly impressionistic and subjective sequences of the film, in which the cinematography (Joshua James Richards) and editing rhythms (Alex O’ Flinn) are more stylized. So in the beautiful sequence of Brady successfully training his new horse Apollo, the sequence plays out as realist vérité, sans music. It is only in the aftermath of this sequence, as Brady rides off and reflects on what this moment means for his identity and future, that the musical score gradually enters, drawing us into his subjectivity.

"The Rider" Score, Composer Nathan Halpern

“The Rider”

Sony Pictures Classics

I score both scripted narrative and documentary films, and this approach is in fact comparable to what I prefer to do on more vérité-based, character-based documentaries; in such films, I find that it is often most effective to stay out of the observational scenes, music-wise, as much as possible. Ideally, the music enters more in the aftermath of such sequences, if at all. In this way, the music can leave space for a feeling of reality and authenticity, while at the same time help to create a heightened experience that speaks to the deeper emotional themes that lie beneath the story.

First, we needed to create a musical palette that would take us into Brady’s physical and mental state as he recuperates in the aftermath of the injury. Chloé described it as being woozy, what it sounds like from inside a bubble. Consequently, the sonic landscape I created here is very deep in register, with defamiliarized and warped musical sounds — pitched winds (evocative of the natural landscape) and high glassy pads. His injury puts his future and his identity in jeopardy so there is underlying sense of existential despair, which I dialed into musically with low cello harmonics that swell up beneath the more abstract sounds. Take a Listen (Below):

There are also moments in the film of emotional clarity and transcendence. In the clip below, after a period of convalescence, Brady takes out Gus, the family horse – who is about to be sold for rent money – for a ride at dawn. It’s Brady’s first time riding since his injury, and the sequence builds into one of immense visual beauty as he rides.

In beginning of the scene, as Brady approaches the horse, the music eases in with the more abstract tones that we associate with his injured state and associated existential despair. But as he begins to ride, emotive and organic strings begin to enter. As Brady picks up pace and begins to ride with greater confidence, the camera moves into a majestic wide shot. And as the visual language develops into something grander and more expressive so too does the music, which becomes bigger and more explicitly melodic and emotional. The music now dials into the complex emotions that lie beneath – the beauty of his connection with his horse as they ride, the sadness of the horse’s imminent departure, and the underlying uncertainty of what lies ahead for each of them. In this moment, as Brady’s numbness gives way to deep feeling, the more abstract and disjointed sounds fall away, and the warm, emotive strings that were gradually creeping in take on full force and melody.

Coming out of the scoreless moments of cinema vérité, and the subjective moments when the score helps brings the viewer into Brady’s fragile headspace in the aftermath of the injury, sequences such as this one stand in cinematic and musical contrast, as Brady reconnects with his identity as a rider. Following Chloé’s unsentimental approach to the film, and saving our bigger moments of scoring for sequences such as this one, helps us to feel the emotional power of Brady’s dreams – which, even when dashed and imperiled, live on.

“The Rider” is playing in select theaters before going wider on May 18th. You can listen to Halpern’s score for the film on spotify.

‘The Rider’ Director Chloé Zhao to Helm Biopic About Bass Reeves, the First Black U.S. Marshall, for Amazon Studios

It will be her third feature.

Don’t expect Chloé Zhao to ride off into the sunset anytime soon. With her acclaimed new film in theaters after winning acclaim on the festival circuit over the last year, she’s now set her follow-up: a biopic about Bass Reeves, the first black U.S. Deputy Marshall, for Amazon Studios. It will be her third feature, following “Songs My Brother Taught Me” (which premiered at Sundance in 2015) and “The Rider.”

Zhao will both write and direct the historical Western, reports Deadline, which “follow Reeves’ journey as a young man born into slavery in 1838 who fled to the Indian Territory in search of freedom and went on to become one of the greatest lawmen of the American West.”

“The Rider” premiered at Cannes, where it won the Art Cinema Award, and went on to receive Independent Spirit Award nominations for Best Feature, Director, Editing, and Cinematography; Zhao was also honored with the inaugural Bonnie Award, which recognizes female filmmakers and includes a $50,000 grant.

Amazon Studios Lands Biopic on Bass Reeves, First Black U.S. Deputy Marshal, From ‘The Rider’ Helmer Chloé Zhao

EXCLUSIVE: Amazon Studios will be the studio behind Chloé Zhao’s untitled Bass Reeves biopic, a historical Western about the first black U.S. Deputy Marshal.
Zhao is writing and will direct the pic, which will follow Reeves’ journey as a yo…

EXCLUSIVE: Amazon Studios will be the studio behind Chloé Zhao’s untitled Bass Reeves biopic, a historical Western about the first black U.S. Deputy Marshal. Zhao is writing and will direct the pic, which will follow Reeves’ journey as a young man born into slavery in 1838 who fled to the Indian Territory in search of freedom and went on to become one of the greatest lawmen of the American West. Zhao made her directorial debut with the film Songs My Brothers Taught Me

‘Lean on Pete’ and ‘The Rider’: Two Bold Westerns Show What Foreign-Born Directors Can Bring to the Genre

IndieWire spoke with U.K. filmmaker Andrew Haigh and China-born Chloé Zhao about the joy and difficulties of shooting the exotic West.

The best Westerns often come from outsiders. Fred Zinnemann’s Oscar-winner “High Noon,” Fritz Lang’s “Rancho Notorious,” William Wyler’s “The Big Country,” Wim Wenders’ “Paris, Texas” — all from Germans and Austrians. And of course, Sergio Leone’s classics starring Clint Eastwood were filmed by an Italian in Spain.

Now we can add U.K. filmmaker Andrew Haigh and China-born Chloé Zhao to their number. Neither set out to comment on classic western genre tropes with “Lean on Pete” (A24) and “The Rider” (Sony Pictures Classics), both of which earned raves on the festival circuit before hitting theaters this month. They shot in the badlands of Colorado and South Dakota, respectively. And both filmmakers explore the relationship between young men, their horses, and the nature that surrounds them. (Their distributors are slowly rolling them out across the heartland.)

“The Rider”

“The Rider”

New Yorker Zhao shot her 2013 documentary “Songs My Brothers Taught Me” in South Dakota. “The connection, the relationship between human beings and nature, is something that did not come natural to me,” she said. “I didn’t understand it or explore it growing up. In my late 20s, I felt I needed it, I don’t have it in my life. I went out West; Pine Ridge is the place I ended up at. It’s a pretty extreme place compared to New York. It was great for me to have boot camp, to go cold turkey on something I’m used to. It was a great way for me to balance as a person and as a storyteller.”

While shooting, Zhao found herself drawn to charismatic young Lakota cowboy Brady Jandreau. In 2016, he suffered a horrific rodeo accident when a bucking bronco broke his skull, sending him into a three-day coma. When he emerged, doctors told him to give up the riding and competing that defined his life. Now, the filmmaker had a story.

Within months, she started her five-week shoot with cinematographer Joshua James Richards. “I didn’t want to stop after the first film,” she said on the phone. “I wanted to explore even more. It wasn’t enough. I made a lot of mistakes. I wanted to just go deeper. When I met Brady, I had the perfect vehicle for it.”

In one shot, we see Brady as the film character Brady, reacting to video of his very real accident. In another, he whispers a prayer to his beloved horse Gus (played by another horse), after he finds out his father is selling him. It’s magic hour, he gently climbs on his back, and it’s stunning. “That was the very first scene I wrote for the whole movie,” said Zhao. “Brady described going outside when it was still dark, with Gus standing there looking at him, waiting for him to ride him, Gus was the first horse. We cast a different, lighter horse, who was better for magic hour.  At this time the world hadn’t woke up yet. It’s just this boy and this horse, no voices. It gives him all the space in the world to make that decision. It’s no big dramatic moment, it’s completely internal. It was important to us to make sure that nature plays into it — and the beauty.”

It took three magic hours to film the minute-and-a-half scene. (A horse with no halter can easily walk away.) And magic hour lasts for only half an hour.

“The Rider”

Zhao walks a delicate tightrope between fact and fiction, using Brady’s real friends and family for her cast of non-pros. His father Tim Jandreau had to agree, of course. And eventually, he did, even though the parent he plays is tougher and less kind. Brady was training wild horses within a month, in a corral 60 miles away from the nearest hospital, getting on them while they were bucking, although he’s given up rodeo. “I trust that Brady knows where his limit is,” said Zhao.

Brady doesn’t have a seizure in his hand; that’s performance. And accident victim Lane Scott suffered a car crash; in the editing process Zhao realized audiences would assume it was a rodeo incident, and let it go.

“Factually, only 40 percent is fake,” she said. “Many things happened naturally. Brady is a specific personality; I knew how he would react and speak within the scene, but 90 percent he’s acting. Real-life scenes are with with Lily, the horses, and improvised scenes with Lane. The real Brady is an upbeat, talkative funny guy, definitely not that somber. He’s playing a character for sure.”

“Lean on Pete”

“I like going to a new environment with open eyes,” Haigh said on the phone. He spent four months checking out the Portland, Ore. suburbs where the movie begins, going to the horse races at Portland Meadows, and driving the desert route through Idaho to Denver, choosing locations for the road movie’s second half. This time, given the exotic terrain, he did get a bigger budget: $8 million from UK funding and the BFI, with A24 picking up North American rights early on.

“Lean on Pete” is another story of a boy (Charlie Plummer) in love with a horse. But, said Haigh, “in the end, it was always about Charley, not the horse or the world he’s living in. It’s his isolation. Here was a good kid who wants normal things in life but because of his situation is allowed to fall through the cracks, left alone in the world, desperate and longing. It drew me, I felt for that kid, I was amazed at his reliance, the hope he clings on to in an unhopeful situation. He has a broken heart.”

A lot happens to Charley that makes his life difficult as he pushes to get what he seeks: stability and security. “He’s a good kid who wants to be loved and protected, but doesn’t feel he deserves that love and protection,” said Haigh.

“Lean on Pete”

Charlie has a relationship with his boss, a craggy racehorse owner (Steve Buscemi) and his jaded female jockey (Chloe Sevigne). However, their ability to help is limited and Charley’s main relationship is with Pete. “He tells things to the horse, his only friend, who he’s so desperate to care for,” said Haigh. “Both are being abandoned by the people who are supposed to look after them, but he doesn’t have the strength to look after the horse.”

Casting was key. Haigh had to find a young actor of a certain age who could carry every scene. “The thing I was most anxious about was not only did I need someone who was incredibly good as an actor, on the cusp of being a child and an adult, but I wanted a Charley who looks grown-up as a little boy lost in the world, who you believe could drive a truck but who is not a fully fledged adult. Charlie Plummer could understand on a fundamental level and was able to bring something subtle and interesting to the role I wasn’t expecting.”

All of Haigh’s films are about a feeling. “I dig into something, and find a way to get there,” he said. “I knew it was about the end of the film. The endings to me are the key moment — in ‘Weekend’, and ’45 Years.’ I know how I want my gut to feel at the ending. Even if I can’t articulate in words what that feeling is, I’m trying to find ways to get there.” Sometimes that means holding back and making the audience work a little harder. “It’s almost an investment between the audience and me as filmmaker. We’re going to do this together, and I will give you some emotional catches that won’t come when you think.”

The feeling he summons is universal and packs a gut punch. “We can all understand that feeling of being alone in the world trying to find ways to not be alone,” he said. As he timed out the different phases in the editing room, Haigh took the chance that holding out for the payoff was the right thing to do. “I was a little nervous,” he said.

Haigh knows that his films “are not for everybody,” he said. “It would be insane to pretend that they’re commercial. Certain people like the way I make films and others do not. I’ve come to terms with the fact that there’s no other way I can make films. If I tried to do it in a different way, it would never work. I have to stop worrying too much.”

For his next logistical challenge, Haigh moves from horses to whales and icebergs as he returns to TV (he was showrunner on HBO’s “Looking”) to shoot a five-part limited TV series on Canada’s Baffin Island for See-Saw Films and the BBC. “The North Water” based on an 1850s whaling mission to the Arctic, is “about men on a boat going into an existential crisis, heading to the Arctic and stranded on the ice,” he said.

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‘Borg vs McEnroe’ Flounders at Indie Box Office While ‘The Rider’ Shines

In a quieter weekend for the indie box office, NEON’s “Borg vs. McEnroe,” Janus Metz Pedersen’s film about the tennis rivalry between Bjorn Borg and John McEnroe had a disappointing start, making only $50,135 for a per screen average of just $1,045. The film starring Shia LaBeouf and Sverrir Gudnason as the famed duo was released on 46 screens and has an 82 percent RT score.

On the flip side, Sony Pictures Classics’ “The Rider” posted the top per screen average from its three-screen release. Directed by Chloe Zhao, the film made $45,268 for a PSA of $15,089.

Also Read: ‘Rampage’ Stomps Past ‘A Quiet Place’ for $34.5 Million Box Office Win

“The Rider” stars Brady Jandreau as a Lakota rodeo rider who hoped that his skills on a horse would lead him out of poverty on the reservation he lives on, but must come to a personal reckoning after serious head trauma forces him to end his rodeo career. The film has received critical acclaim with a 98 percent Rotten Tomatoes score.

Also disappointing was the indie animation film “Sgt. Stubby,” which tells the true story of the titular Boston Terrier who became a hero during World War I for finding wounded soldiers in No Man’s Land, becoming the first dog to be promoted to Sergeant in the U.S. Army. While it had a 90 percent RT score, it only made $1.1 million from 1,633.

Also Read: ‘The Rider’ Film Review: Lyrical Tale of Injured Rodeo Star Heralds a Major Talent

Finally, there’s Bleecker Street’s “Beirut,” a thriller starring Jon Hamm as a former U.S. diplomat who comes out of retirement to save a colleague from the group that killed his family in 1980s Beirut. Also starring Rosamund Pike and Dean Norris, the film made $1.6 million from 755 screens for a PSA of just under $2,200

Among holdovers, IFC’s “The Death of Stalin” added $460,000 from 325 screens in its sixth weekend to bring its total to $6.2 million. Amazon’s “You Were Never Really Here” expanded to 51 screens in its second weekend for $310,000 to bring its total to $497,000.

Related stories from TheWrap:

‘Rampage’ Stomps Past ‘A Quiet Place’ for $34.5 Million Box Office Win

5 Reasons ‘A Quiet Place’ Became Horror’s Latest Box Office Sensation

‘You Were Never Really Here’ Rides Cannes Praise to Big Indie Box Office Start

In a quieter weekend for the indie box office, NEON’s “Borg vs. McEnroe,” Janus Metz Pedersen’s film about the tennis rivalry between Bjorn Borg and John McEnroe had a disappointing start, making only $50,135 for a per screen average of just $1,045. The film starring Shia LaBeouf and Sverrir Gudnason as the famed duo was released on 46 screens and has an 82 percent RT score.

On the flip side, Sony Pictures Classics’ “The Rider” posted the top per screen average from its three-screen release. Directed by Chloe Zhao, the film made $45,268 for a PSA of $15,089.

“The Rider” stars Brady Jandreau as a Lakota rodeo rider who hoped that his skills on a horse would lead him out of poverty on the reservation he lives on, but must come to a personal reckoning after serious head trauma forces him to end his rodeo career. The film has received critical acclaim with a 98 percent Rotten Tomatoes score.

Also disappointing was the indie animation film “Sgt. Stubby,” which tells the true story of the titular Boston Terrier who became a hero during World War I for finding wounded soldiers in No Man’s Land, becoming the first dog to be promoted to Sergeant in the U.S. Army. While it had a 90 percent RT score, it only made $1.1 million from 1,633.

Finally, there’s Bleecker Street’s “Beirut,” a thriller starring Jon Hamm as a former U.S. diplomat who comes out of retirement to save a colleague from the group that killed his family in 1980s Beirut. Also starring Rosamund Pike and Dean Norris, the film made $1.6 million from 755 screens for a PSA of just under $2,200

Among holdovers, IFC’s “The Death of Stalin” added $460,000 from 325 screens in its sixth weekend to bring its total to $6.2 million. Amazon’s “You Were Never Really Here” expanded to 51 screens in its second weekend for $310,000 to bring its total to $497,000.

Related stories from TheWrap:

'Rampage' Stomps Past 'A Quiet Place' for $34.5 Million Box Office Win

5 Reasons 'A Quiet Place' Became Horror's Latest Box Office Sensation

'You Were Never Really Here' Rides Cannes Praise to Big Indie Box Office Start

‘The Rider’ Puts a Female Lens on Toxic Masculinity

In this essay produced as part of the NYFF Critics Academy, Caroline Cao looks at how the story of a Lakota cowboy interrogates the American dream.

This article was originally produced as part of the NYFF Critics Academy. “The Rider” is now playing in limited release.

“You can overcome anything if you work hard enough” is an infectious idea, a brick in the foundation of the American Dream. But that depends on how accessible that dream is in the first place. The titular hero Brady Blackburn of “The Rider” confronts such boundaries as he pines to return to the rodeo pedestal.

Rarely do Native Americans faces command an onscreen presence. While the recent historical romance “A Woman Walks Ahead” empowers Native American voices, it still fits a pattern of regulating Native Americas as supporting players to white-centric narratives. On the other hand, Chloe Zhao’s gentle drama “The Rider” gives the spotlight to the Lakota face of Brady Jandreau, whose real-life head injury inspired the film.

Zhao shot “The Rider” and her first Lakota-centric feature “Songs My Brothers Taught Me” on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, which encompasses a dark history of American oppression, namely the 1890 Wounded Knee massacre. Zhao commits to the naturalism to illuminate the crass realism of day-to-day lives. Harkening back to “Songs My Brothers Taught Me,” where the hero had to choose between homeland loyalty and leaving its dreary borders, Brady is disillusioned in his homeland of the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. Zhao anchors Brady in a harsh reality where dreams just aren’t feasible, physically, and economically.

Like Valeska Grisebach’s “Western,” “The Rider” places a female lens on the toxic masculinity that plagues society. Wracked with a crippling damage in his brain and hand, Brady wants to resurrect his glory days as the masculine “cowboy up” ideal. But his head injury, in which the wounds are exposed in the chilling opening as Brady plucks off blood-tipped surgical staples, imposes considerable inertia as he lugs himself toward reviving his bronco-riding career.

Zhao complicates our reaction to Brady’s pursuit by unfurling the layers of his predicament from economical to spiritual. On one hand, it respects his free-spirited desire to get back up. In his desperate economic station, we feel for Brady as he takes up a menial job as a price-checker to pay off his father’s gambling debts in a sterilized store, a black-hole nightmare for many in the poverty loop. On the other hand, his physical constraints are incurable. His dream could cost him his life, but the “die trying” adage sounds like a consolation should the dream claim his life.

DP Joshua James Richards shooting "The Rider"

DP Joshua James Richards shooting “The Rider”

In every film, we do not want to believe the naysayers. His father Tim (Tim Jandreau) gruffly commands him, “let go,” judging that his son’s delusions of grandeur could lead to fatality. It’s antagonistic and rubs salt in Brady’s wounds. Brady’s fellow friends believe in him, but they don’t buy that Brady’s condition needs gradual recovery time or is incurable. So much for the ideal of “hard work gets you anywhere.” It can’t cure a head and bodily injury. But Brady can hide his wounds underneath his hat so that from the distance, he looks functional in the eyes of his less informed friends. Thus, expectations are projected onto him. Masculine peers insist he’s a failure if he does not get back in the arena. They don’t see his injury as a grim anchor, but as just another hurdle to jump over.

To counterpoint these “supportive” friends’ unrealistic expectations, Brady turns to another acquaintance for empathy: a tetraplegic Lane Scott (playing himself) who bears a bronco-related damage that Brady cannot hide beneath his cowboy hat. With Lane, Brady finds relief from the pushiness of his friends, and they watch their good ole’ days on crude iPhone videos where they were worshipped superstars before their respective injuries. Unlike Brady’s able-bodied friends, Lane first-hand knows that not everything is hunky-dory with Brady’s quest.

Zhao leaves an understated tragedy in the inconclusiveness to Brady’s predicament. Brady nearly crosses the borders of the rodeo ring for his epic career comeback, but he walks away at peace with his vulnerability for better or worse. Lane feeds Brady some encouragement to not give up on his dreams, but Brady is left to meditate on its open-ended meaning. Can Brady choose to try again if he wishes? Or should Brady redefine the dream to find satisfaction?

We trust Brady can survive. He doesn’t need to indulge in grandiose visions; there is satisfaction in hunkering down. Lane’s encouraging lets Brady be open to other avenues. But we’re not shown happier alternatives for Brady’s post-rodeo existence. Nor is the whole of Brady’s underprivileged society resolved. Who is part of the American Dream? Certainly not those excluded from the prosperity of the American Dream. Sometimes the practicalities of life aren’t obstacles, but realities. Sometimes the forces that question that sparked these dreams in the first place are questionable.

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‘The Rider’ Film Review: Lyrical Tale of Injured Rodeo Star Heralds a Major Talent

Filmmaker Chloe Zhao vaults into a rarefied atmosphere of filmmaking mastery with her stunning second feature, “The Rider,” a neo-Western about rodeo riding, hobbled masculinity and reflective grace that feels unlike anything else out there.

Its compelling singularity no doubt has something to do with its milieu –Native American bronc and bull specialists on the rodeo circuit who hail from South Dakota’s Pine Ridge Reservation — but it primarily derives from Zhao’s filmmaking choice to combine a deeply felt story and a risky-but-rewarding vérité approach. The result is at times heart-stoppingly effective, pulling us so close to some of the movie’s key characters that they begin to feel like family.

We meet Brady Blackburn (Brady Jandreau) by way of the formidable stapling in his shaved head, a physical scar that forecasts the psychological journey ahead. A gifted young Lakota horse trainer, Brady had been an up-and-coming saddle bronc star until a horrible rodeo accident put him briefly in a coma, set him up with a metal plate, and incurred a doctor-ordered end to his riding days.

Watch Video: ‘The Rider’: How Brady Jandreau’s Brush With Death Led Him to Hollywood (Exclusive)

At home he endures watching his dad (Tim Jandreau), with whom he often clashes, sell Brady’s beloved horse Gus to pay debts. Brady also gets loving support from his autistic sister Lilly (Lilly Jandreau) and his rodeo pals. But he’s consumed by uselessness. Brady wants nothing more than to get back to training and riding, because his sense of incompleteness outside his life with horses is starting to feel like the worse injury. It’s a stubbornness doomed to embolden him, but what is he otherwise?

If you noticed that the actors’ last names are the same, it’s because Zhao is essentially telling Brady Jandreau’s story, starring Brady himself. After making her debut feature (“Songs My Brothers Taught Me”) at Pine Ridge, where she had ingratiated herself with the various tribes, Zhao got to know the laconic, horse-whispering Lakota cowboy before his accident, and witnessed his struggles afterward.

When she started putting together a version of Jandreau’s story as a film, Zhao made the decision to have everyone in Brady’s world play themselves. That included fellow professional rider Lane Scott, a rising star confined to a wheelchair after his own terrible accident, and visited onscreen in rehab by Brady. Their touching scenes eschew schmaltz for the more heart-tugging sensation of a lived-in camaraderie readjusted by tragedy.

Also Read: Cannes: ‘The Rider,’ ‘A Ciambra’ Win Top Prizes in Directors’ Fortnight

Directors have used non-professionals since movies began, but what Zhao gets out of her 21-year-old real-life cowboy star — by turns stoically lost, humbled, loving, and defiant — is nothing short of miraculous. Jandreau’s is a true, camera-ready performance, filled with nuance, and it speaks to Zhao’s actor-whispering skills that it burns so brightly at the center of her film. Other movies have utilized non-actors to portray versions of themselves – one immediately thinks of Oscar winners Harold Russell and Haing S. Ngor – but they were intended to be elements in a larger, homogenized creation.

“The Rider” is fully Jandreau’s; it’s impossible to imagine it having the same impact without his committed, enveloping presence. He’s as powerful as any macho western protagonist stripped to the core — the gunfighter disarmed or the pioneer made homeless. That he’s Native American, pale-skinned but proud, only deepens the reconfiguring of this country’s myths that’s another undercurrent in “The Rider.”

See Photos: 17 Highest-Grossing Movies Directed by Women, From ‘Mamma Mia!’ to ‘Wonder Woman’

“The Rider” also may be one of the best movies ever made about people and horses as a transcendent relationship. The documentary-infused scenes of Jandreau training and connecting with horses — the wild and ornery, the broken and fearful — are mesmerizing in their fluidity and intimacy, dramatizing a kind of tough love born of tradition and respect. Jandreau’s adoration of these animals is not only pulsating: it allows the horses to be flesh-and-blood co-stars in Brady’s story, not just four-legged accessories.

It’s all gorgeously photographed, too, by Joshua James Richards (“God’s Own Country”), who understands fully the magnetic power of a silhouetted horizon shot, a haunting landscape, or a close-up in a truck. And more importantly, that they all need to be seamlessly strung-together verses in the same evocative frontier poem.

The densely authentic space between neo-realism and documentary where “The Rider” exists is one of the most beautiful and affecting realms I’ve had the pleasure of visiting recently as a moviegoer. Having seen it twice — the first time unaware of its hybrid approach, the second time fully cognizant that I was watching real people in a form of healing re-enactment — the spell, I realized, was the same: a lyrical sense that life is lived and re-lived, acted out but ever retraced, and that to reclaim ourselves after a fall is perhaps what being human is all about. We live in identity-convulsive times, and I can’t think of a movie more attuned to the question “Who am I?” than this one.

Spiritual and earthy, forged in curiosity yet fortified with empathy, “The Rider” is why we go to the cinema, and it affirms Chloe Zhao as one of the most gifted new movie artists of our time.



Related stories from TheWrap:

Hollywood Gender Gap Shocker: Women Directed Just 3 Percent of This Year’s Studio Films (Exclusive)

Film Independent Spirit Awards Gives Out $150,000 in 2018 Filmmaker Grants

‘The Florida Project,’ ‘The Rider’ Nominated for Cinema Eye Honors (Exclusive)

‘Rampage’ Stomps Into Theaters in Need of Big Overseas Launch

Filmmaker Chloe Zhao vaults into a rarefied atmosphere of filmmaking mastery with her stunning second feature, “The Rider,” a neo-Western about rodeo riding, hobbled masculinity and reflective grace that feels unlike anything else out there.

Its compelling singularity no doubt has something to do with its milieu –Native American bronc and bull specialists on the rodeo circuit who hail from South Dakota’s Pine Ridge Reservation — but it primarily derives from Zhao’s filmmaking choice to combine a deeply felt story and a risky-but-rewarding vérité approach. The result is at times heart-stoppingly effective, pulling us so close to some of the movie’s key characters that they begin to feel like family.

We meet Brady Blackburn (Brady Jandreau) by way of the formidable stapling in his shaved head, a physical scar that forecasts the psychological journey ahead. A gifted young Lakota horse trainer, Brady had been an up-and-coming saddle bronc star until a horrible rodeo accident put him briefly in a coma, set him up with a metal plate, and incurred a doctor-ordered end to his riding days.

At home he endures watching his dad (Tim Jandreau), with whom he often clashes, sell Brady’s beloved horse Gus to pay debts. Brady also gets loving support from his autistic sister Lilly (Lilly Jandreau) and his rodeo pals. But he’s consumed by uselessness. Brady wants nothing more than to get back to training and riding, because his sense of incompleteness outside his life with horses is starting to feel like the worse injury. It’s a stubbornness doomed to embolden him, but what is he otherwise?

If you noticed that the actors’ last names are the same, it’s because Zhao is essentially telling Brady Jandreau’s story, starring Brady himself. After making her debut feature (“Songs My Brothers Taught Me”) at Pine Ridge, where she had ingratiated herself with the various tribes, Zhao got to know the laconic, horse-whispering Lakota cowboy before his accident, and witnessed his struggles afterward.

When she started putting together a version of Jandreau’s story as a film, Zhao made the decision to have everyone in Brady’s world play themselves. That included fellow professional rider Lane Scott, a rising star confined to a wheelchair after his own terrible accident, and visited onscreen in rehab by Brady. Their touching scenes eschew schmaltz for the more heart-tugging sensation of a lived-in camaraderie readjusted by tragedy.

Directors have used non-professionals since movies began, but what Zhao gets out of her 21-year-old real-life cowboy star — by turns stoically lost, humbled, loving, and defiant — is nothing short of miraculous. Jandreau’s is a true, camera-ready performance, filled with nuance, and it speaks to Zhao’s actor-whispering skills that it burns so brightly at the center of her film. Other movies have utilized non-actors to portray versions of themselves – one immediately thinks of Oscar winners Harold Russell and Haing S. Ngor – but they were intended to be elements in a larger, homogenized creation.

“The Rider” is fully Jandreau’s; it’s impossible to imagine it having the same impact without his committed, enveloping presence. He’s as powerful as any macho western protagonist stripped to the core — the gunfighter disarmed or the pioneer made homeless. That he’s Native American, pale-skinned but proud, only deepens the reconfiguring of this country’s myths that’s another undercurrent in “The Rider.”

“The Rider” also may be one of the best movies ever made about people and horses as a transcendent relationship. The documentary-infused scenes of Jandreau training and connecting with horses — the wild and ornery, the broken and fearful — are mesmerizing in their fluidity and intimacy, dramatizing a kind of tough love born of tradition and respect. Jandreau’s adoration of these animals is not only pulsating: it allows the horses to be flesh-and-blood co-stars in Brady’s story, not just four-legged accessories.

It’s all gorgeously photographed, too, by Joshua James Richards (“God’s Own Country”), who understands fully the magnetic power of a silhouetted horizon shot, a haunting landscape, or a close-up in a truck. And more importantly, that they all need to be seamlessly strung-together verses in the same evocative frontier poem.

The densely authentic space between neo-realism and documentary where “The Rider” exists is one of the most beautiful and affecting realms I’ve had the pleasure of visiting recently as a moviegoer. Having seen it twice — the first time unaware of its hybrid approach, the second time fully cognizant that I was watching real people in a form of healing re-enactment — the spell, I realized, was the same: a lyrical sense that life is lived and re-lived, acted out but ever retraced, and that to reclaim ourselves after a fall is perhaps what being human is all about. We live in identity-convulsive times, and I can’t think of a movie more attuned to the question “Who am I?” than this one.

Spiritual and earthy, forged in curiosity yet fortified with empathy, “The Rider” is why we go to the cinema, and it affirms Chloe Zhao as one of the most gifted new movie artists of our time.

Related stories from TheWrap:

Hollywood Gender Gap Shocker: Women Directed Just 3 Percent of This Year's Studio Films (Exclusive)

Film Independent Spirit Awards Gives Out $150,000 in 2018 Filmmaker Grants

'The Florida Project,' 'The Rider' Nominated for Cinema Eye Honors (Exclusive)

'Rampage' Stomps Into Theaters in Need of Big Overseas Launch

How This Year’s Oscars Became a Feminist Game Changer (Guest Blog)

Frances McDormand, a week has passed since the Oscars, and I’m still fired up by your speech.

The highlight of attending this year’s ceremony was when you symbolically lowered your much-deserved masculine statue down on the stage, and called on all the nominated women to stand. Your recitation of “inclusion rider” validated a legal concept that needs to be shouted throughout the land.

I was moved to tears and stood up cheering your inspiring gestures from my nosebleed seat at the Dolbe Theatre.

Also Read: The Timely Accessory I’m Wearing to This Year’s Oscars (Guest Blog)

Photo Courtesy of Aviva Kempner

The only thing that would have made me happier if I had been able to give you the gun reform button — “Love Your Children More Than Your Guns” — that I had in tow. My vision was of you wearing this miniature billboard for the world to see. I presented one to Allison Janney while secretly wishing her “West Wing” character was presently working in the White House.

I believe the 2018 Oscars are going to have a lasting influence. The nomination for “Mudbound” cinematographer Rachel Morrison has already challenged me to hire beyond the norm. I employ mostly female staff members and editor, and was now inspired to use a female cinematographer for my L.A. shoot last week. My search was unsuccessful, but I am now committed to hiring a woman DP for future shoots.

Several 2018 nominees have given audiences game changing insights. The most empowering female portraits — Meryl Streep’s female newspaper publisher fighting for the Fourth Estate in “The Post” and McDormand’s grieving mother demanding justice in “Three Billboards” — were most liberating. Thanks Jordan Peele for your “Get Out,” a stirring horror story about race and eye opener to white society. And kudos to Sebastian Lelio for writing and casting Daniela Vega in such a moving trans love story as “A Fantastic Woman.”

Other Hollywood actresses have also led the charge. The expressions of solidarity with the #MeToo and Time’s Up movements at the Golden Globes and the SAG Awards were so encouraging.

Also Read: Michael B Jordan Accepts Frances McDormand’s Invitation, Will Adopt Inclusion Riders

These thespians’ courageous acts inspired me to come to the Oscar ceremony sporting this accessory about our society’s gun issues, because lawmakers in my Washington, D.C., hometown are not calling for reform. Using words expressed by one of the Parkland student survivors, a D.C. school teacher was my designer.

I finally managed to hand McDormand a button two days after the Oscars when she was introducing an amazing new film, “Rider,” directed by the talented Chloe Zhao. At its reception, I observed how the outspoken actress’ words were already reverberating in Hollywood. I overheard a male producer bragging that he was hiring two female directors for future film projects.

I left L.A. singing, “Is this the start of something wonderful and new,” from the Oscar-winning song from last year’s “La La Land,” “City of Stars.” I told my airport Lfyt driver, an actor of African heritage named Lamarana Bah, that this new Hollywood era should be helpful finding roles.

Also Read: Katie Couric Talks Matt Lauer, Sexual Harassment at TheWrap’s Power Women Breakfast Austin

I swear I stood taller arriving in my Washington on Women’s International Day. And I did not waste any time employing my expanded height. I rushed to proudly attend a private screening of the most enjoyable “A Wrinkle in Time,” directed by Ava Duverney and produced by the tenacity of D.C.-based producer Catherine Hand. It is one of the largest budgeted films ever directed by a woman of color.

I returned late at night to find a newsletter that lauded those contributing to the creation of an embassy statute without mentioning any of the women who had also worked on the art project. I sent off emails criticizing the exclusion, and sure enough those in power agreed to correct the errors.

I feel McDomrand’s message traveling with me as I am working today on a new feminist tale, “Pissed Off,” about how the female senators fought to secure a bathroom for themselves in the Capitol since there had not been women elected to that legislative branch before 1932. Hollywood inspired this story too — the idea came to me listening to a panel last year at The Wrap’s Power Women Breakfast in D.C.

Also Read: 17 Highest-Grossing Movies Directed by Women, From ‘Mamma Mia!’ to ‘Wonder Woman’ (Photos)

I expect that McDormand’s call for action and advancements in 2018 will be reflected at next year’s ceremony. How about a woman hosting the Oscars? Bring back Whoopi!! Expect another nomination for Morrison’s work on “Black Panther,” and numerous nods for diverse and female nominees.

Meanwhile, there is a most pressing matter. To those women in Hollywood who have led the way please join us here in D.C. on March 24 to walk the streets calling for changes in U.S. gun laws. We need your talent and notoriety to demand that legislators finally demonstrate compassion and wisdom to protect our youth.

Frances, we need you here to billboard the message. And if you have misplaced the button I gave you, don’t worry — we are making many more.

Related stories from TheWrap:

The Timely Accessory I’m Wearing to This Year’s Oscars (Guest Blog)

Michael B Jordan Accepts Frances McDormand’s Invitation, Will Adopt Inclusion Riders

Oscars: What Is an ‘Inclusion Rider,’ That Thing Frances McDormand Mentioned in Her Acceptance Speech?

Frances McDormand, a week has passed since the Oscars, and I’m still fired up by your speech.

The highlight of attending this year’s ceremony was when you symbolically lowered your much-deserved masculine statue down on the stage, and called on all the nominated women to stand. Your recitation of “inclusion rider” validated a legal concept that needs to be shouted throughout the land.

I was moved to tears and stood up cheering your inspiring gestures from my nosebleed seat at the Dolbe Theatre.

Photo Courtesy of Aviva Kempner

The only thing that would have made me happier if I had been able to give you the gun reform button — “Love Your Children More Than Your Guns” — that I had in tow. My vision was of you wearing this miniature billboard for the world to see. I presented one to Allison Janney while secretly wishing her “West Wing” character was presently working in the White House.

I believe the 2018 Oscars are going to have a lasting influence. The nomination for “Mudbound” cinematographer Rachel Morrison has already challenged me to hire beyond the norm. I employ mostly female staff members and editor, and was now inspired to use a female cinematographer for my L.A. shoot last week. My search was unsuccessful, but I am now committed to hiring a woman DP for future shoots.

Several 2018 nominees have given audiences game changing insights. The most empowering female portraits — Meryl Streep’s female newspaper publisher fighting for the Fourth Estate in “The Post” and McDormand’s grieving mother demanding justice in “Three Billboards” — were most liberating. Thanks Jordan Peele for your “Get Out,” a stirring horror story about race and eye opener to white society. And kudos to Sebastian Lelio for writing and casting Daniela Vega in such a moving trans love story as “A Fantastic Woman.”

Other Hollywood actresses have also led the charge. The expressions of solidarity with the #MeToo and Time’s Up movements at the Golden Globes and the SAG Awards were so encouraging.

These thespians’ courageous acts inspired me to come to the Oscar ceremony sporting this accessory about our society’s gun issues, because lawmakers in my Washington, D.C., hometown are not calling for reform. Using words expressed by one of the Parkland student survivors, a D.C. school teacher was my designer.

I finally managed to hand McDormand a button two days after the Oscars when she was introducing an amazing new film, “Rider,” directed by the talented Chloe Zhao. At its reception, I observed how the outspoken actress’ words were already reverberating in Hollywood. I overheard a male producer bragging that he was hiring two female directors for future film projects.

I left L.A. singing, “Is this the start of something wonderful and new,” from the Oscar-winning song from last year’s “La La Land,” “City of Stars.” I told my airport Lfyt driver, an actor of African heritage named Lamarana Bah, that this new Hollywood era should be helpful finding roles.

I swear I stood taller arriving in my Washington on Women’s International Day. And I did not waste any time employing my expanded height. I rushed to proudly attend a private screening of the most enjoyable “A Wrinkle in Time,” directed by Ava Duverney and produced by the tenacity of D.C.-based producer Catherine Hand. It is one of the largest budgeted films ever directed by a woman of color.

I returned late at night to find a newsletter that lauded those contributing to the creation of an embassy statute without mentioning any of the women who had also worked on the art project. I sent off emails criticizing the exclusion, and sure enough those in power agreed to correct the errors.

I feel McDomrand’s message traveling with me as I am working today on a new feminist tale, “Pissed Off,” about how the female senators fought to secure a bathroom for themselves in the Capitol since there had not been women elected to that legislative branch before 1932. Hollywood inspired this story too — the idea came to me listening to a panel last year at The Wrap’s Power Women Breakfast in D.C.

I expect that McDormand’s call for action and advancements in 2018 will be reflected at next year’s ceremony. How about a woman hosting the Oscars? Bring back Whoopi!! Expect another nomination for Morrison’s work on “Black Panther,” and numerous nods for diverse and female nominees.

Meanwhile, there is a most pressing matter. To those women in Hollywood who have led the way please join us here in D.C. on March 24 to walk the streets calling for changes in U.S. gun laws. We need your talent and notoriety to demand that legislators finally demonstrate compassion and wisdom to protect our youth.

Frances, we need you here to billboard the message. And if you have misplaced the button I gave you, don’t worry — we are making many more.

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The Timely Accessory I'm Wearing to This Year's Oscars (Guest Blog)

Michael B Jordan Accepts Frances McDormand's Invitation, Will Adopt Inclusion Riders

Oscars: What Is an 'Inclusion Rider,' That Thing Frances McDormand Mentioned in Her Acceptance Speech?

Indie Spirit Awards: Restrained #MeToo and Time’s Up Conversations Look to the Future and ‘Manifesting Change in Deeper Ways’

At the annual awards event, winners and stars like Dee Rees and Chloe Zhao were focused on what comes next, not about what has already happened.

Surprising no one in attendance, Film Independent Spirit Awards hosts Nick Kroll and John Mulaney dug into the current #MeToo and Time’s Up climate during their whipsmart, whirlwind opening monologue. The duo named names of accused offenders – Harvey Weinstein to Kevin Spacey, Brett Ratner to Woody Allen – and turned some of the more painful elements of the biggest story of the season into a canny punchline. But most winners and stars seemed eager to move past chatter and onto the future at the annual event.

While the audience at the beachside ceremony was ready to laugh – a gag about literally burying Weinstein in an “XXL Unmarked Grave” was initially met with groans, then giggles – their approach was more measured and cautious during speeches and interviews.

In his opening remarks, Film Independent president Josh Welsh acknowledged that it had been “a rough year” for many, but he remained optimistic about the power of art: “At a time when cynicism might seem triumphant, your work – your movies – are so critically important,” he told the crowd, “and to me, and I think to everybody in this room, a beacon.”

It was that spirit that guided the rest of the show, that sense that art – and artists – could be a beacon during tough times and even tougher talks.

When Spirit Awards chair Ava DuVernay presented the inaugural Bonnie Award to fellow filmmaker Chloé Zhao for her film “The Rider,” the focus wasn’t on the bad stuff, it was on pushing forward and standing strong together.

Chloe Zhao, Ava DuVernay. Chloe Zhao accepts the Bonnie award at the 33rd Film Independent Spirit Awards, in Santa Monica, Calif. Ava DuVernay looks on from right2018 Film Independent Spirit Awards - Show, Santa Monica, USA - 03 Mar 2018

Chloe Zhao and Ava DuVernay

Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP/REX/Shutterstock

While accepting the honor, which recognizes a mid-career female director with a $50,000 unrestricted grant, Zhao thanked DuVernay and eventual Female Lead winner Frances McDormand for being role models. “All the strong women out there, thank you for being who you are and being such amazing role models for so many of us,” she said.

Zhao shared the same sentiment, that change comes when like-minded people bind together, earlier on the red carpet. “I’m really glad this is all happening, and I think the day when we are treated as equals as women — but also treated as individuals — is when we’ve really made it, when we’ve really arrived,” she told IndieWire.

Best Editing winner Tatiana S. Riegel had a similar outlook after she won for her work on “I, Tonya.” The only woman in the bunch, Riegel hit the backstage interview space with an eye towards the importance of the current conversation, and the hope that will change things…eventually.

“There is a disparity, there definitely is,” she said when asked about gender equality in the industry. “I think all of this conversation is extremely helpful and I think that it’s probably, sadly, going to take a bit more time to get parity and equality, but the conversation is good, everybody is aware of it. I think it’s making it a bit more difficult for people to intentionally pay less, because they’re gonna get caught.”

Despite the uptick in conversations regarding conversations about equality, parity, and sexual misconduct (so often against women in the industry), insiders and stars were careful to pronounce that sweeping change is somehow inevitable in the industry.

Tatiana S. Riegel, John Cho, Kathryn Hahn. Tatiana S. Riegel accepts the award for best editing for "I, Tonya" at the 33rd Film Independent Spirit Awards, in Santa Monica, Calif. John Cho, right, and Kathryn Hahn look on2018 Film Independent Spirit Awards - Show, Santa Monica, USA - 03 Mar 2018

Tatiana S. Riegel

Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP/REX/Shutterstock

When IndieWire asked “Get Out” star Betty Gabriel whether #MeToo and Time’s Up have impacted her experience on-set, she said, “I think it was so underneath the surface and it being brought to the surface, I just think it will find itself manifesting change in hopefully deeper, more profound ways, in huge ways.”

One way to push that sort of profound change? Backstage after accepting the Robert Altman Award for “Mudbound,” filmmaker Dee Rees had an idea, one she offered up after she was asked about her hopes for young women witnessing the current changing conversation.

“I hope that this conversation means something to young men,” Rees said. “Because as they see women who are running things and they see women that are intelligent, it will change their ideas of what women are capable of and how they should be treated. So I hope that it helps young men and women to have a different idea about how to be in the world.”

When Rees ended her exceedingly well-received comments, “Mudbound” star Garrett Hedlund offered his own response: he picked the mic off its stand, briefly held it, and let go. A literal mic drop.

Additional reporting by Jenna Marotta.

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‘The Rider’ Trailer: Chloé Zhao’s Cannes Prizewinner Isn’t Her First Rodeo — Watch

The film premiered at Cannes before making its way to Telluride and Sundance.

After impressing audiences at Cannes, Telluride, and Sundance and earning four Independent Spirit Award nominations, “The Rider” is finally making its way to theaters. Chloé Zhao’s drama was acquired by Sony Pictures Classics, which has just released the film’s first trailer. Watch it (courtesy of Vulture) below.

Here’s the synopsis: “After a tragic riding accident, young cowboy Brady (Brady Jandreau), once a rising star of the rodeo circuit, is warned that his competition days are over. Back home, Brady finds himself wondering what he has to live for when he can no longer do what gives him a sense of purpose: to ride and compete. In an attempt to regain control of his fate, Brady undertakes a search for new identity and tries to redefine his idea of what it means to be a man in the heartland of America.”

Tim Jandreau, Lilly Jandreau, Cat Clifford, and Lane Scott co-star in the film, Zhao’s second after “Songs My Brother Taught Me.” “The Rider” — which is up for Best Feature, Best Director, Best Editing, and Best Cinematography at the Spirit Awards — arrives in theaters on April 13.

Chloe Zhao’s ‘The Rider’ Follows A Rodeo Rider On His Real-World Recovery – Sundance Studio

Chloé Zhao was one of Deadline’s Ones To Watch out of the Cannes Film Festival this year, where her sophomore feature, The Rider, premiered. Its journey since then has been remarkable, playing film festivals around the world, including a slot at Toronto, before its Sundance premiere this week. And Zhao stopped by Deadline’s Sundance Studio to share the just-as-remarkable journey her lead actor went on during and after the making of the film.
The Rider stars newcomer Brady…

Chloé Zhao was one of Deadline’s Ones To Watch out of the Cannes Film Festival this year, where her sophomore feature, The Rider, premiered. Its journey since then has been remarkable, playing film festivals around the world, including a slot at Toronto, before its Sundance premiere this week. And Zhao stopped by Deadline’s Sundance Studio to share the just-as-remarkable journey her lead actor went on during and after the making of the film. The Rider stars newcomer Brady…

‘The Rider’ Director Chloe Zhao Receives Inaugural Bonnie Award

Chloe Zhao, who produced, directed and wrote the Western drama “The Rider,” has won Film Independent’s inaugural Bonnie Award, given to recognize a mid-career female director. The trophy, which includes a $50,000 grant, was presented to Zhao at the organization’s Spirit Awards brunch at Boa Steakhouse in West Hollywood. Her film, which debuted at the […]

Chloe Zhao, who produced, directed and wrote the Western drama “The Rider,” has won Film Independent’s inaugural Bonnie Award, given to recognize a mid-career female director. The trophy, which includes a $50,000 grant, was presented to Zhao at the organization’s Spirit Awards brunch at Boa Steakhouse in West Hollywood. Her film, which debuted at the […]

‘The Florida Project,’ ‘The Rider’ Nominated by Cinema Eye Honors (Exclusive)

Sean Baker’s “The Florida Project,” Joshua Z. Weinstein’s “Menashe” and Chloe Zhao’s “The Rider” are nominated for the Cinema Eye Honors Heterodox Award, which goes to films that blur the line between narrative fiction and documentary filmmaking.

Guido Hendrikx’s “Stranger in Paradise” and Pawel Lozinski’s “You Have No Idea How Much I Love You” were also nominated for the award. Previous winners include “Boyhood,” “Taxi,” “Beginners,” “All These Sleepless Nights” and “Post Tenebras Lux,” among others.

At the same time, the Cinema Eye Honors, which were established in 2007 to honor all facets of non-fiction filmmaking, announced that its 2018 Cinema Eye Legacy Award will go to Leon Gast’s Oscar-winning 1996 film “When We Were Kings,” a look at the 1974 heavyweight championship boxing match between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman.

Also Read: ‘City of Ghosts,’ ‘Strong Island’ Lead Cinema Eye Honors Nominations

The Legacy Award, which goes to a documentary classic with lasting influence, will be presented at the annual Cinema Eye Honors lunch on Jan. 10 in New York City. “When We Were Kings” will be shown that evening, followed by a Q&A with Gast, at the Museum of the Moving Image in Queens.

“At a time when sports, race and political protest are swirling together in the news, it is the perfect moment to honor Leon Gast’s brilliant documentary about one of the greatest figures in sports history, a man unafraid to speak out on race, war or politics, Muhammad Ali,” said filmmaker and Cinema Eye co-chair Marshall Curry.

The Heterodox Award winner will also be announced at the lunch on Jan. 10, with other Cinema Eye Honors winners revealed at an awards ceremony the following night.

Also Read: Sports and Politics Don’t Mix? History Says Otherwise (Photos)

With his Heterodox Award nomination for “The Florida Project,” Sean Baker becomes the first filmmaker to be nominated twice for that award. He was previously nominated for “Tangerine” two years ago.

The Heterodox nominees were selected from a field of 10 semifinalists, which had been chosen by more than two dozen film-festival programmers who specialize in nonfiction film. The final nominees were then chosen by a smaller jury of programmers and journalists.

The rest of the Cinema Eye Honors nominations were previously announced and are available here.

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Sean Baker’s “The Florida Project,” Joshua Z. Weinstein’s “Menashe” and Chloe Zhao’s “The Rider” are nominated for the Cinema Eye Honors Heterodox Award, which goes to films that blur the line between narrative fiction and documentary filmmaking.

Guido Hendrikx’s “Stranger in Paradise” and Pawel Lozinski’s “You Have No Idea How Much I Love You” were also nominated for the award. Previous winners include “Boyhood,” “Taxi,” “Beginners,” “All These Sleepless Nights” and “Post Tenebras Lux,” among others.

At the same time, the Cinema Eye Honors, which were established in 2007 to honor all facets of non-fiction filmmaking, announced that its 2018 Cinema Eye Legacy Award will go to Leon Gast’s Oscar-winning 1996 film “When We Were Kings,” a look at the 1974 heavyweight championship boxing match between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman.

The Legacy Award, which goes to a documentary classic with lasting influence, will be presented at the annual Cinema Eye Honors lunch on Jan. 10 in New York City. “When We Were Kings” will be shown that evening, followed by a Q&A with Gast, at the Museum of the Moving Image in Queens.

“At a time when sports, race and political protest are swirling together in the news, it is the perfect moment to honor Leon Gast’s brilliant documentary about one of the greatest figures in sports history, a man unafraid to speak out on race, war or politics, Muhammad Ali,” said filmmaker and Cinema Eye co-chair Marshall Curry.

The Heterodox Award winner will also be announced at the lunch on Jan. 10, with other Cinema Eye Honors winners revealed at an awards ceremony the following night.

With his Heterodox Award nomination for “The Florida Project,” Sean Baker becomes the first filmmaker to be nominated twice for that award. He was previously nominated for “Tangerine” two years ago.

The Heterodox nominees were selected from a field of 10 semifinalists, which had been chosen by more than two dozen film-festival programmers who specialize in nonfiction film. The final nominees were then chosen by a smaller jury of programmers and journalists.

The rest of the Cinema Eye Honors nominations were previously announced and are available here.

Related stories from TheWrap:

170 Films Enter Oscars Documentary Category, Setting New Record

'Jane' Wins Top Prize at Critics' Choice Documentary Awards

'Hunting Ground' Filmmakers to Make Hollywood Sexual Assault Documentary

‘The Rider’ Review: This Cannes Winner Is Part Truth, Part Drama, and Completely Heartrending

Chloe Zhao returned to the setting of her debut feature to craft a docudrama about a real-life American cowboy in the midst of a major life change.

IWCriticsPick

You can’t fake “The Rider.” Chloe Zhao’s lyrical docudrama blends fact and fiction into an intimate portrait of American masculinity at large and a solitary cowboy trying to find his way back to the only life he’s known. Utilizing a cast of non-actors — most of whom are tasked with playing versions of themselves, in a story pulled from their lives — Zhao’s film derives its power from the truth that both drives it and inspires it, and the final result is a wholly unique slice-of-life drama.

Zhao first made waves with her 2015 feature debut “Songs My Brothers Taught Me,” a festival favorite set on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota that tracked the bond between a pair of Lakota siblings. It’s also where she discovered young rodeo cowboy Brady Jandreau, who makes his debut in “The Rider” as an on-screen version of himself in the worst period of his own life. The way Zhao tells it, she wanted to make another film about the people of Pine Ridge, and she specially sparked to Jandreau, who exhibits a natural charisma and ease. But Zhao didn’t know the story she would tell until a terrible accident at one of Jandreau’s rodeo competitions forever altered the course of his life.

We don’t need to see the accident to understand its vicious power. “The Rider” opens with Jandreau (here cast as “Brady Blackburn”) removing tightly packed bandages to reveal the skull-spanning wound that slashes across the right side of his skull, still stapled and barely holding together. Later, “The Rider” briefly introduces home video that chronicles the real rodeo accident, a lightning-quick fall that could have been just another tumble, until the horse happened to stomp on Jandreau’s head, splitting it open. It’s not bloody or gory, but it’s shocking. Jandreau’s own face — playing on-screen Brady, but watching real-life Brady, reacting to his own fate — tells us everything we need to know.

It could have been the end for Brady, but it wasn’t. Brady searches for meaning in something that still seems senseless and wholly accidental, but unable to compete and reticent to get literally back on the horse, Brady’s life chugs along at a muted pace. His friends (including fellow cowboys Tanner Langdeau and James Calhoon) try to pull him back into the fold, while his family (Jandreau’s own father and sister, lightly fictionalized versions of themselves) are terrified that another accident will kill him.

Read More: ‘The Rider’: Chloé Zhao’s Moving Cannes Winner Goes On a Journey in New Clip — Watch

Who is Brady Blackburn without rodeo? Zhao’s film offers a number of answers, one of which takes shape thorough a series of alternately wrenching and inspiring scenes between Jandreau and his own real-life best friend Lane Scott, a former rodeo star who was grievously injured in a car accident and is now mostly paralyzed and lives in a rehab facility.

Lane is a stark reminder of what can happen when the body is betrayed and broken; another film could turn Lane and Brady’s visits into heavy-handed sequences, but Zhao never does. Jandreau’s deep empathy and his real-life bond with Scott add another level to the interactions, which are among some of the most emotionally rewarding on screen this year. That Brady is trying to hide some of the lingering effects of his own accident further punctuate that he’s risking everything to just be himself.

As Brady inches his way back, he returns to the very creatures that hurt him: his beloved horses. The future of Brady’s rodeo career may be a question mark for much of the film, but his affinity for animals is never in doubt, and scenes of Jandreau training and riding a variety of horses — often easing the most skittish ones, breaking them in gentle ways — beautifully illuminates why it’s so hard for him to walk away from the only world he’s ever known (Joshua James Richards’ cinematography, always intimate, is almost unbearably lovely and loving here). When he finally makes his choice, Zhao pulls back, leaving Brady (both Blackburn and Jandreau) to face the future, one full of terror and wonder, but one finally full of possibility.

Grade: A-

“The Rider” will hit theaters in early 2018.

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