There's an epic magic-hour shot in Chloé Zhao's The Rider that's so gorgeous, every great Hollywood Western director might want to hang up their spurs. Real-life saddle bronc rider Brady Jandreau, a daredevil 20-year-old with a busted head, hand and hip, mounts a horse that could kill him. At his last rodeo, a stallion stomped on his skull. Jandreau barely survived, but his doctor's orders to never ride again are just a slower kind of death here on South Dakota's Lakota-Sioux Pine Ridge Reservation. But there he goes, galloping past the sunset. You can imagine John Ford beaming somewhere.
Based loosely on the story of Jandreau's own true story of going from a rodeo up-and-comer to an injured cowboy without a cause (and a need for catharsis), The Rider follows this modern-day wrangler as he struggles to put his life back together. We watch his daily routines, his attempts to fit into "normal" society, his late-night hangouts with his friends and his frustrations at having to figure out his second act. (One scene, in which the character breaks a horse, features Jandreau actually taming the animal in real time.) It's an incredible, indelible reimagining of the mythology of the American West – yet the Chinese filmmaker admits that while she's now directed two Westerns, she'd maybe watched a grand total of three before picking up a camera. If her sophomore film proves nothing else, however, it's that these images and feelings we think of as pure prairie Americana are universal. She has no sentimental baggage about the genre – a freedom that gives The Rider some of its unusual gait.
"I didn't grow up with that kind of archetype," says Zhao on the phone from her current home in Ojai, California. So when she ended up in the heartland and first met a teenage Brady Jandreau several years ago, the result wasn't: Here's the second coming of John Wayne. He was just another young trainer, albeit one with an uncanny gift for empathy. "It wasn't, '[The] Marlboro Man! Macho!'" laughs Zhao. "If he can manipulate the emotions of a horse," she recalls thinking, "maybe he can manipulate an audience. Maybe he can act." Zhao saw him as a new breed of movie star: a stoic, sinewy guy who radiated authentic frontier masculinity and a palpable sense of presence. And though teeming Beijing is over 700 times the population of Pine Ridge, she unexpectedly saw herself in him. She understood what it was like to grow up with a sense that people have it better somewhere else.
Growing up in Northern China, Zhao would overhear her father cry while listening to ballads about going home to Mongolia – a distant cousin to our home-on-the-range ballads of yore. But as a self-described "wild child" in Nineties Beijing, she had no access to classic films or any kind of indie or arthouse cinema. The first movie she ever saw, she says, was True Lies – one of the very first American action blockbusters imported into China. After she was blocked from joining the Youth Communist Party for low grades – "I just wanted to get discount movie tickets!" – she left China to study political science in London. Then Zhao moved to New York and began to take film classes. After sampling three megalopolises, she flew to South Dakota on a whim, checked into a motel and introduced herself as a director developing a movie about the kids of the reservation.
"If I was going to tell them I was making a documentary, I think it might have been a little bit harder to get people onboard," admits Zhao. Paradoxically, the locals were more honest when they could pretend their facts were fiction. "There's a healing process in art, to ask these young people to play out some of their intimate personal struggles ... sometimes [it's] even more true than if you just point and shoot." Her first film, the semi-fictional drama Songs My Brother Taught Me, took her to Cannes and Sundance. Still, South Dakota kept pulling her back. "It's my cinematic universe!" laughs Zhao, complete with recurring characters, though at first, she wasn't sure of what the second story was that she was meant to tell. She just knew that kid who could tame stallions would be her next hero.
Meanwhile, as the director was bopping across continents, Brady Jandreau's life in South Dakota was stable. His dad, Tim, plopped him on a saddle when he was 15 months old – and the kid pretty much never got off. He rode sheep in his diapers, and full-grown horses solo by three and a half. He met his best friend, Lane Scott, when they were toddlers; as they grew up, they straddled bulls and saddle broncs. Lane was the star. "He was a badass," says Jandreau. Both figured they'd turn pro and bet their futures on eight seconds astride a bucking bronco; Lane's injury in a car accident sidelined that particular dream. But Brady kept going for the brass ring. "You could be heading home with a gold buckle and a pile of money – or you could be going home with a broken leg," he says. "I would truly risk my life to keep doing what I love."
Then on April Fools Day, 2016, a bucking rodeo bronc cleaved a three-inch, knuckle-deep gash in Jandreau's skull. Manure and sand ground into his brain. Jandreau went into a seizure, then a coma. He woke up and ripped the tubes out of his body ("I was trying to go home") and was forced back into unconsciousness. When he woke up the second time, he looked around for his girlfriend, Terri, and proposed.
That's where Zhao found her start for The Rider, with the "crazy-ass dreams" a horse cloaked in shadows that her collaborator had in the hospital. The stapled scar on his head is real. Tim Jandreau plays his screen father; that's Brady teen sister playing the character's sibling with Aspergers syndrome, who points to his bandage and hums, "This is a head. It's called 'skull.'" The young man visits in the hospital – that's the actual Lane. Above all, there's no kidding about his doctor's orders to quit riding or else. For six months, as the plates in his head fused, Jandreau wasn't even supposed to jog. Instead, he was on a horse in two weeks.
"After my head injury, I was, like, bipolar, an emotional wreck," he admits. Still, Zhao prodded him to concentrate on, and control his feelings. Jandreau may have been struggling. But at least his character, named Brady Blackburn, knew when he was supposed to cry. He told Zhao his saddest childhood memories, both of them about foals he bottle-fed before they died, until the tough cowboy began to sob on camera. "That was a version of coping for me," Jandreau says. "I had to find a whole new way to harness my emotions. I don't think you're very strong unless you've cried a few tears. You've never really lived."
Thanks to its lead's stripped-down, close-to-the-bone performance, The Rider makes you feel as if you're a fly on the wall of this character's heartbreaks, setbacks and small victories. (Zhao's hunch paid off: He has an amazing screen presence, though the young man isn't actively pursuing any more acting gigs.) And thanks to the movie, the now-22-year-old Jandreau can claim to have done a lot of living in the two years and some change since his accident. He married Terri (who has a small, compelling cameo in the film), walked La Croisette in France, traveled around the United States promoting the film and started his own breeding business, Jandreau Performance Horses. He also had a daughter, Tawnee Bay, who swayed on a stuffed pony when she was 10 days old.
Plus he taught Zhao to ride, too. "On Pine Ridge, there's a joke that I'm the Lakota girl with the weird last name," she laughs, a Chinese girl in braids constantly being mistaken for Native American until she opened her mouth. She made him an actor; he made her a cowgirl, even if after only an hour of guarding cattle, she was ready to slide off the saddle. And she's not done with the frontier yet: Zhao's third movie is going to be a historical piece about a black sheriff in Creek and Cherokee territory, now present-day Oklahoma. "We tend to generalize nowadays, everything is so black and white when it's very complicated," she says. "But once upon a time, this was a place [where] these people from different backgrounds tried to build a nation together." And she's just the person to bring that American story full circle.