Disability in Film is a new semi-regular series of personal responses to the portrayal of disability, chronic illness, and injury in film and television.
Author’s note: I have tried to accurately represent the facts of Brady Jandreau’s experiences while also discussing The Rider as a semi-fictional film; because it is a hybrid of observational documentary and fiction this is not an easy feat, and I sincerely apologize if I have mischaracterized any events.
In my experience you don’t wake up from an accident or on the other side of a dire diagnosis with the word “disability” suddenly at the top of your personal lexicon. We spend lifetimes, our childhoods and adulthoods and careers and relationships, cultivating identities. Our lifestyles and interests all bloom organically both from social influences, from the pursuit of joy, and from our physical and mental abilities. People who are shit at sports as children may not develop friendships with athletic kids; without athletic friends, these kids may in turn be less likely to take an interest in sports. Athletic kids are renowned among peers (and parents) for their physical feats and this influences future choices. We become “basketball players” or “bicyclists” or “bronco riders” because these are things that we do because we can. We believe very powerfully that we are the things that we do. For folks for whom disability and chronic illness are a surprise later in life we undertake a long grieving process, mourning the death of who we once thought we were.
Everyone loses parts of themselves as they age. Maybe you were a musician in your 20s. Your band toured a bit, you had rockstar dreams, maybe you saw yourself scoring films, directing orchestras. Dreams rarely die in a day; they fade slowly and insidiously. When disfigurement or injury forces you to relinquish what you have always accepted as normalcy, when you can no longer walk long enough to hold down a job you’ve always wanted, when you can’t fetch your own meal from the next room, or make enough sense of the words you read to carry on with beloved hobbies, well, it no longer really matters who you were. You are who your body forces you to be. With or without premature disability or illness, we all hold onto dead identities, well until old age when old dreams have transitioned into nostalgia.
The difference for sick and hurt people is that their bodies no longer give them even the illusion of choice.
I suppose that the healthiest end-game of these experiences is acceptance, but I’m not sure this is ever a realistic goal. When I was not much younger than I am now, I fell and broke my left leg in three places. After my initial recovery, I gave all of my spare time to bicycling, spending years reveling in the incomparable personal thrill of speeding through fresh air, my bottom half still functional. In the meantime, the old injury gradually returned in the form of intractable nerve pain, pain so severe that I was eventually unable to walk or sit or stand on my left side (the official diagnosis is Chronic Regional Pain Syndrome, or CRPS, which is simply an agreement among pain specialists that nobody knows what neuropathic pain is or how to treat it). I’ve now spent four years trying to escape pain. I’ve had three surgeries, worked with some incredibly talented physical therapists, and recovered some mobility as the condition has progressed to its incurable final stage, which is likely to mean a lifetime balancing pain with limited function. It is what it is. I haven’t magically put old dreams behind. The mind doesn’t work this way. I don’t think I’ll ever accept that I can’t ride a bike anymore (beyond a few minutes here or there) or walk more than a block or two to fetch lunch. The closest I will come is to accept the word that the world now associates with me: “Disabled.” I don’t want that word, but it is mine. If I must lose so many of what I thought were my signifiers, then I look to this clinical, emotionless word to guide me.
What is disability? Am I now a blue sign and a cane? Of course I am. This is as profound a marker of difference, of abnormality as anything, and in order to carry on I have to learn to inhabit that difference. I can’t challenge my own dissonance until I find ways to live with the word.
All Stories are True
Director Chloé Zhao created The Rider as star Brady Jandreau was in fact recovering from a severe head injury, blurring the already blurry line between fact and fiction. Using the tools of narrative cinema to create an observational film about actual people in Pine Ridge, North Dakota, a Native American reservation and cowboy town. Much of what we see is factual; Jandreau’s actual friends and family play moderately fictionalized versions of themselves, the film is shot entirely on location on the Reservation that is its setting, and most of the injury and disability that we see is entirely real.
It’s strange to address The Rider as though it were like any other film, but let’s lay some groundwork: Jandreau plays Brady Blackburn, more or less an analog of himself, a professional horse trainer who suffers a deadly head wound while riding a bronco at a rodeo. The horse stepped on his head after a fall, exposing his brain to bone and dirt and leaving a permanent impression where his skull was collapsed. The film follows him as he returns home to his family and navigates his uncertain new life. Zhao had already planned to shoot a drama about a rider when his accident happened and she swerved to instead build a story about a hurt man.
Ride Through the Pain
His first human encounter upon returning home from the hospital is with his father, Tim Blackburn (played by Jandreau’s father, Tim Jandreau) who immediately mocks the young man’s poor coordination as he tries and fails to toss a lasso: “what the hell, can’t you rope any more?” The able-bodied man, a clearly unwell man before him, is too proud even to empathize with the idea of disability. That evening at home Tim mocks his son for riding in the first place, placing all responsibility for what’s happened on his son’s shoulders. It’s unclear if Tim imagines himself a joker, that perhaps all of this is a brand of well-intentioned tough love (his gentler interactions later in the film suggest as much). His daughter Lily, played by his actual daughter Lily Jandreau, presents with developmental disabilities and it may be that this is how he has learned to adjust to a family marked by loss and difference, as he has also lost a spouse in the past. He does comment later in the film that “sometimes dreams aren’t meant to be” which is in fact a relatively pragmatic, if blunt, thing to say to a newly disabled person; at least there is truth to it. In any case, the net effect on Brady of Tim’s behavior is a dire one. He’s not so far from youth that he wouldn’t feel the sting of a parent’s abuse. I don’t think it’s an accident that we see him in his junior high sports jacket. Brady is still a kid.
When severe neurological symptoms begin to appear even weeks after the injury, manifesting as clenched fists and nausea that he can’t control, his first instinct is, of course, to hide it. If he doesn’t recover, it is his fault. He is safest to be himself, as injured as he knows himself to be, with his sister, his horses, his best friend Lane, and at his mother’s grave. His moments with this family are consistently loving and accepting – something that none of the able-bodied men in his life seem capable of. His circle of friends expect him to be every bit the cowboy all at once, insisting that “you’re not gunna let no pain put you down” and telling him to “Ride through the pain.” This is a vicious admonition that you hear in many sports circles, including cycling; close friends use it ironically with me. I promise that no matter what you are experiencing right now, no matter how much you think you can tell another person about their experience, you don’t know. You can’t. Not really. The healthy thrive on the idea that encouraging the sick to get over whatever it is that ails them is somehow helpful. Some medical practitioners do it. They make prescribing decisions based on failures to empathize. I have been very fortunate with my medical teams. This is a privilege and I know this.
I’m Just Taking Some Time Off
The closest thing to a villain in the film is an asshole called Tanner (not me) who tells his date at a bar after a rodeo that Brady “will be fine, he’s not a little bitch.” Where macho posturing starts misogyny is always, without exception, soon to follow. Brady is first bullied for his weakness then accused of being that most horrible thing, a woman, because he is hurt and because he’s replaced youthful abandon with caution. Thanks to all of this Brady tells himself and others that he is on the mend and he will soon be back on horses. “I’m just taking some time off.” This is a man who spent most of his waking hours tending to horses, training horses, riding horses. This is who he was and he speaks to his pending recovery as a truism, but as time passes and his peers begin to ask when they will see him return to riding, his default answer begins to play like a socially necessary lie.
I’ve never believed my own lies to myself.
Chronically ill and disabled people frequently enter into a social contract that requires healthier individuals to compliment the other. To observe that they look great, they’re glad to see such progress, you are so strong, I admire you, fingers crossed.. I don’t mind much, these are expressions of compassion from people who wish me well. In The Rider, these conversations feel less honest as the film progresses but they’re never malicious. Part of the film’s success in sustaining a sense of community and empathy in spite of the toxic macho bullshit Brady fields, is thanks to scenes visiting Lane Scott, his best friend. Lane is another young man who was injured in a rodeo fall (in actual life, Lane Scott was hurt in a car accident). Brady does not condescend to Lane. He does pay lip service to an unlikely future back on a horse but he in no way correlates riding with manly virtue. They are best friends who love each other as only best friends can. One learning to understand the new changes to his life, the other already well into his post-injury experience. Their scenes have a warmth and sweetness to them that a lesser film would treat hopelessly.
A Horse Without a Rider
As Brady has begun to recover some of his life he tries, at great risk, to train and even to ride – to feel that wind in his hair again (writing this I’m losing it imagining a bicycle beneath me). He takes on Apollo, a wild horse left parked at a friend’s ranch with no one to help break him and find a use for him. In Pine Ridge, a horse without a rider is no better than a rider without a horse. One afternoon after he has tamed and made Apollo his friend, he discovers the horse in a field with a severe leg injury thanks to a tangle with barbed wire fence. Brady sees himself in the poor beast. A bird with a clipped wing can’t fly; why keep it alive? What other value is there in a life that has lost its livelihood? The horse is no longer useful, and its only option is death. This is frequently on the minds of chronically ill and disabled people. What good am I? Why go on if all I can do is lie in bed in pain? Brady doesn’t seem to have suicide in him (though the film, maybe gratuitously, has him ominously consider first a rope and then a pistol as though weighing awful options), but this is too frequently the choice that afflicted people make. I’ve certainly considered it. I expect that, at my lowest, I will again.
There is a good-tempered scene during which Brady gifts his riding clothes to a friend. There was a scene in my own life where I gifted my riding clothes to a friend, as well. Some of them, anyway; he wasn’t much interested in the cycling equivalent of jock straps.
The film plays more truly than any other I’ve seen on the subject because so much of it is true, is a literal observation of people portraying themselves as they survive newly limited lives. Brady has struggled to return to the life he loves, but not by a shallow metric of success. It helps to know that in actuality, Jandreau has recovered his career as a horse trainer and started a family. The film – and this is profoundly powerful to me understanding that these sequences were absolutely real – shows us his attempts to return to training and bring friendship to angry animals, a deadly activity for those of us even without delicate skulls. I’ve periodically remitted and regained some walking without pain, and the feeling is difficult to describe. Walking the dog for the first time in four years didn’t leave me in some sort of cathartic state. There were no tears, but there was primarily this unshakeable sensation that today, finally, is unexceptional. It is a day just like any other day.