Consider the Romanesco broccoli. Have you seen one? They’re marvelous vegetables, each a swirling series of fractals that make up one organic piece of art.
The Romanesco broccoli looks different depending on your perspective. From the top it looks like an intricate flower, from the side it looks like a tree. Cut into pieces it looks like any regular type of broccoli you’d find at your grocery store. Romanesco broccoli is fascinating to look at, not only because it’s beautiful, but also because each of its buds and swirls contribute to the whole picture of a majestic vegetable. People, like broccoli, are made up of pieces that are interesting when examined in isolation, but the view is not as rich until one steps back and sees the whole.
In Chloe Zhao’s incredible film, The Rider, she examines two aspects of the whole person: masculinity and empathy. The Rider is the semi-fictional story of Brady Blackburn, a young Lakota rodeo cowboy grappling with a brain injury suffered in the ring and the prospect that he may never ride again. Brady faces a crushing sense of responsibility to care for his sister and provide a home for her, a short list of prospects in a place marred by poverty, and a tense relationship with his father, who seems to have real estate in Brady’s mind while being absent from his life.
It’s a modern film, adjacent to the Western genre in the best way. Brady is a real cowboy, but there are no lawmen, no Wild West, and no crooks to face at high noon. There is merely brokenness, which is what the West has always visited upon men. In this regard, I think The Rider’s inclusion in Westerns month at Lewton Bus is really about examining masculinity and the way a story inherently told from a woman’s and an ethnic minority perspective (in several ways) contributes to a genre that has been dominated by men. Here, Zhao suggests there are other ways for men to be.
Zhao treats masculinity as an ever-shifting, organic being, changing depending on one’s perspective and adapting to its surroundings. The Rider does not have pity for a damaged man, but adopts an empathetic perspective that suggests we are all fragile in our own ways, and that it is okay to be so.
As Brady rebuilds his life, still suffering physical side effects of what happens when a horse stomps on your head, the film slows to allow the audience to meditate on the nature of living and thriving. Brady longs for the glory of the rodeo, but he knows it may not be possible. He’s warned repeatedly that riding again may lead to another injury and death. He takes a step back, examines the whole of his responsibilities, and takes a job at a grocery store stacking cans and working the cash register. What struck me most about this was not the mundane nature of the work, but just how the scenes inside the grocery store show a subtle and internal experience of just…existing. It provides the audience with time to breathe, and for Brady to think about his next steps. Should he get back into the ring? Should he explore other options? What about his fans? It’s clear that stacking cans is not enough, but what if it has to be?
Further complicating matters is Brady’s father, Wayne, who steered his son into the rodeo life in the first place. He’s a drunkard who spends his money on booze instead of rent, but the movie is empathetic towards him, too. He and Brady teeter back and forth on the edge of a cliff. They love each other, but they see in each other the potential to slip away. Brady almost died doing the thing Wayne pushed him to do. Wayne has the kind of motorless life that Brady fears is waiting for him if he doesn’t get back on a horse.1
Masculinity in a more traditional film would present the triumphant climax as Brady riding into the rodeo again, feeling the dirt and the cheers while letting the grim reaper sit behind him. We love a story of men conquering. But not this movie. This movie doesn’t see the triumph in that. It sees the triumph in empathy and love, in understanding that life has thrown you a curveball and the “manly” thing to do is accept it and be responsible for your own reaction to struggle. If you feel a pang of regret for stepping away from the rodeo, it’s not for nothing. Because your sister needs a home and needs her brother, and if you are tossed off a horse again, it is a life tossed away. There is a wisdom in Brady’s actions that belie his age.
The Rider shows that bravery is pushing against the masculinity that has defined you and overriding the impulses that want you to prove yourself in toxic ways. Brady has nothing to prove, except to know he survived and he can still thrive. It’s a lesson that we should all take to heart whenever we are at a crossroads and when we want to give into our worst impulses.
There is no one who cannot be trampled, but we can find a way to move forward. Its profound empathy is what makes The Rider an even more pressing and essential film.
By examining the toxic nature of masculinity and wielding compassion as a balm, Zhao allows the audience to step back and consider how these pieces inform Brady as a whole person. He isn’t just a cowboy. His father isn’t just a drunk. They are both just men who sometimes could use some empathy.
The Rider is available now on DVD/Blu-ray and to rent digitally on most platforms.
- I would be remiss if I didn’t step out of the movie for a moment to say that Pine Ridge, the South Dakota reservation where the actors (and their characters) live, is one of the most impoverished places in the country and that its financial state cannot be removed from European colonialism and its wreckage.