What do you do when the very thing that makes you exceptional, is woven into the fabric of your entire being, and feels like what you were destined to be is taken from you?

The Rider is the story of a real-life Lakota rodeo cowboy, Brady Jandreau, who was tossed from his horse during a rodeo and sustained a horrific injury. Now, he must consider a life without the rodeo, a place that seemed synonymous with his own name, and the prospect of never even riding a horse again.

Jandreau plays a semi-fictionalized version of himself, named Brady Blackburn in the movie, and his father, sister, and friend play semi-fictional versions of themselves. The director, Chloe Zhao, is a Chinese-American filmmaker raised in Beijing who has set both her movies in the Plains and more specifically, among Native Americans on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. She is telling the story of a culture and people rarely depicted with respect and accuracy. In showing the Jandreaus’ story, Zhao has created a masterpiece and what is assuredly one of the best movies of the year.

Zhao blurs the line between fact and fiction in a way that is lifelike and never manipulative. The script is crafted loosely to allow for Brady, his family, and friends to insert naturalistic dialogue and slang. More importantly, it allows for Lilly Jandreau, who has autism, to be herself. This movie does not shy away from representing people as they are. One man has a hook for a hand, and it’s not a clever bit of movie magic. Brady’s best friend, Lane Scott, is paralyzed and talks using sign language. Brady’s contentious relationship with his father and the masculine cowboy culture that has made and unmade him in the blink of an eye feel like well-worn arguments and ideas that Brady himself has had to consider in the past few years since his injury.

As he recovers, Brady has to make ends meet, so he gets a temporary gig at the local supermarket. His job at the market is dull, but he approaches it with an awareness that what matters isn’t his ego, it’s a paycheck that will keep them all sheltered and fed.

Underlying this is the grave decision he has to make. When will he return to the rodeo? If he does, another injury would likely kill him and if not, there’s still the matter of the seizures he’s been suffering as a result of his brain trauma. Brady feels riding and the rodeo in his soul. It envelops him and is part of him in a way that could be unimaginable for most of us. Have you ever felt like you were meant for something? Like the way most athletes may imagine themselves and the prospect of never playing again, Brady has to decide between the people in his life who love him and the very thing that makes him feel whole. 

When Brady finds an opportunity to make money training horses, which he had been doing before his injury, the movie takes on a whole other life. The scenes where Brady Blackburn is working with horses and calming their nerves, showing them he can be trustworthy, is all Brady Jandreau. A professional horse trainer in real life, Jandreau approaches horses with a gentle touch. As he and the horse engage in a dance of movement so the animal can become accustomed to a rider, Zhao takes a light touch with the camera. Her direction makes these scenes soar with life and meaning simply by staying out of the way. Joshua James Richards, the movie’s cinematographer, creates a stunning vista and lights Brady to highlight his eyes, just as he highlights a horse’s. When Brady lets loose on the Plains to ride his horse, we are watching him rediscover life before our eyes.

The heart of The Rider is Brady’s relationship with his best friend, Lane Scott (who also plays himself). Scott is in a long-term rehabilitation home after being paralyzed; the movie is vague about what happened to him but what’s clear is that this former rodeo star will likely never ride again. It’s all the more heartbreaking when we see that, as part of his physical therapy, he sits on a saddle and runs through rodeo maneuvers with Brady. The image of these two young men grappling with the lives they may never have again with optimism and cheer is poignant and devastating. Since we know Lane Scott and Brady Jandreau are real people, The Rider gives us a glimpse into lives and a culture in a way that no one else could have replicated. It asks us to feel for these men, and we do.

Much has been written about how the Jandreaus are “non-actors.” I want to push back on this. Acting involves drawing upon feelings that may be abstract to the audience, and imbuing them with meaning so that we can be drawn into the world being depicted. This family knows what it was like to cope. Tim Jandreau (playing Wayne, Brady’s father) had to wait for his son in a hospital. Brady Jandreau has an actual metal plate in his head. Their mannerisms and attitudes feel natural and burrow into your brain because these actors worked closely with Zhao to depict authenticity while maintaining the movie’s cinematic quality. Their choice to use certain words, say things certain ways, or conversely, to leave something private, are all decisions that actors make. 

I would be remiss if I didn’t think about how this cowboy story – this Native American story – is told through the lens of a Chinese woman. Zhao has said that the story she wanted to tell was that of identity and masculinity, and that because she was Chinese, that may have led to a better  experience of being on the reservation. There is togetherness in otherness, after all. 

In an interview with Vanity Fair, Jandreau said:

“She’d been around. She knew the lingo and how people are. She was able to step into our world: riding horses, moving cows, stuff like that. Why should we be scared to step foot into her world?” he said. “She would do things like get on a 1,700-pound animal for us. And trust us. So we did the same. We got on her 1,700-pound animal.”

A story like this could only be told with someone who was a Native American rodeo cowboy and a horse trainer. Brady Jandreau was, in fact, the most appropriate person to tell his own story. He is also a magnetic and astonishing presence in The Rider. He holds the audience with just a gaze and dark eyes, and he has an understanding of how to convey emotion that belies his age and relative inexperience.

The way Zhao films the wide open landscapes of South Dakota is magnificent, and in my mind is the most cinematic use of them since The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. South Dakota is wild and beautiful, and the movie is filmed during the golden hour so these shots become a feast for the eyes. These shots are also symbolic. Brady is a big star in a small place, a rodeo celebrity who holds onto a saddle for 8 seconds of glory. Standing in the Plains, devoid of the trappings that made him feel like he mattered, Brady is small. The quiet moments with just Brady and the Badlands, the mesas looming in the distance, the golden swirls of the sky – these are among many tangible details that are worth savoring. 

Ultimately, The Rider is optimistic. Life has changed for Brady and Lane, but they keep moving forward. In one scene, Brady laments that an injured horse has to be put down, but that he – obviously seeing himself in a similar position – continues to live because he’s a person. While I walked away feeling in my gut that Brady would ride again, I also felt a catharsis that when he did, it wouldn’t be for a rodeo, but simply to continue healing a part of him that was injured but kept going.