The Rider

The Rider

The Rider is the story of Brady Jandreau, a young rodeo rider who contemplates his future after a brutal fall from a bucking bronco leaves him with a plate in his head and neurological damage that renders him in only partial control of his right hand.

As one of those “based on a true story” movies, The Rider takes an interesting approach to its material. A documentary would have been one viable option, as would a conventional movie with conventional actors. But instead what this film does is have the real people themselves basically recreate for the camera the relevant events of their recent lives (no doubt with plenty of changes and embellishments, since it is accepted for even “true” movies to fictionalize as much as is deemed necessary to make for a better story or otherwise suit the filmmaker’s purposes).

Some of the names are changed (e.g., even though Jandreau is basically playing himself, his character is called Brady Blackburn), but it’s almost all the actual people. His father is his father, his little sister (who has some kind of retardation or autism spectrum condition) is his little sister, his friends are his friends, etc.

It works. Knowing that these are the actual people makes it easier to connect with them and care about them. (Oddly, that doesn’t seem to happen consistently with documentaries even though there too we’re seeing the actual people; my experience is that on average documentaries have less emotional impact like that on me than do conventional movies.)

The Rider is a slow-paced, slow developing film with plenty of silence, plenty of time to let things sink in and think about them. That can make it a little more taxing to stick with than a more conventional movie—certainly than a Hollywood blockbuster designed to appeal to those with the shortest attention span—but of course it has its rewards as well. I experienced this languorous style as about 80% positive and 20% negative.

The main characters are Lakota Indians. The film was shot in the Badlands of South Dakota. Setting is crucial to the film. The wide open, empty, impressive scenery is powerful and beautiful on the one hand, and yet depressing at the same time. It felt somehow simultaneously liberating to imagine living my life in such a huge, open area, surrounded by remarkable natural beauty that stretches as far as one can see in every direction, but also limiting.

I guess it’s that feeling of “Wouldn’t it be great to get away from it all, to head to the middle of nowhere and be somewhere so natural and real?” combined with “But of course if you’re in the middle of nowhere, you have a heck of a lot fewer options, fewer opportunities for growth, fewer things to do, more risk of boredom.”

I sense that in the characters too. I think they appreciate where they are—there’s little or no “I gotta get out of this place!” sentiment expressed—yet they seem quite limited in terms of what lives they can imagine for themselves.

Granted, this is surely less a matter of physical geography than of social reality. Brady’s injury makes it impossible or unlikely that he’ll be able to continue on his path to rodeo stardom (and to horse training as an occupation; the injury makes his participating in future rodeos out of the question unless he’s insanely reckless, but it also evidently makes at least some of the tasks he would normally do as a horse trainer risky), which is especially devastating to him because rather than being merely one of many dreams he could have chosen to follow, rodeo and working with horses is seemingly the only thing he has ever imagined as a way to avoid a dreary, deadening life of meaningless drudgery and perpetual financial hardship.

When he steps away from the rodeo (he hopes temporarily, but realistically it’s permanently), he takes a job at a local store, no doubt minimum wage or close to it. He’s also still doing a limited amount of horse training, but as mentioned that too is in jeopardy because of his health.

But there’s no talk of going to college, of moving to the city, of pursuing some other career, of pursuing some other life beyond decades of low level labor in a nearly empty corner of South Dakota.

Evidently there are few role models in this community to give young people any ideas about a promising future. His widower father is probably typical in that, while he’s not an unusually bad person or bad father, he’s the kind of guy who is always scraping to get by, who is always in danger of having his trailer repossessed, who has no work that has meaning for him and/or is well-compensated, who drinks, and who has little in the way of a social life or little to look forward to beyond hanging out at local bars and casinos (which of course only exacerbates his financial problems).

Brady sees this and tells his father, “I’m not going to end up like you,” which to him means he must return to the rodeo no matter how risky it is, because those are the only two futures he can imagine.

The Rider actually does a very good job presenting the positive reasons someone like Brady would want to devote his life to being the best rodeo rider he can be. I had no preexisting interest in rodeo, but I was able to vicariously get caught up in his dream. Rodeo for Brady means the opportunity to do something that he happens to be extraordinarily good at. It also means proving his physical courage, securing lucrative prize money, working with the kind of people and animals for which he feels an affinity, earning the respect of people whose opinions he values, attaining celebrity status—all the fame and fortune stuff, and more.

I’m not exaggerating when I include celebrity status in that list. Rodeo is one of those things that for many people in many areas probably sounds like the most trivial of pursuits—like winning tiddlywinks tournaments or something—but in fact it is a very big deal to a lot of people in communities like that of this film all over the country. Even though his career has been cut off while still in an early stage, Brady is already something of a big shot in the rodeo world. In one scene, a starstruck youngster is thrilled to encounter him in the store where he is working, and to obtain a picture with him.

So, yeah, excelling at rodeo is no minor league dream, and I don’t mean to present it like the only thing it has to recommend it is that it’s a way to avoid the life that he sees his father and other people in his community being stuck with.

Yet there’s no denying that the appeal is in part this negative one of “Because there’s nothing else for me if I’m going to avoid being a loser and a nobody.” He’s like a ghetto child obsessed with being one of the fraction of one percent of kids growing up in that environment whose love of basketball provides them a ticket to bigger and better things. There’s the positive, the love, but also the “Someone like me has no other options” factor.

But of course there are always other options, other dreams. It’s an illusion, albeit a common and understandable one, for kids who grow up deprived in some sense or other to believe that their adulthood will either be a miserable one or will be one of extraordinary success in some flashy career (e.g., professional sports, music) that has room for extremely few winners. Granted there aren’t as many options, at least not realistic options, for them as there might be for kids raised in a richer (financially and culturally) environment, but there are some.

I don’t in any way mean to downplay how hard it is to give up a dream, especially one that you have already shown that you are capable of achieving to a significant degree. It’s not like he’s to be criticized because he can’t just wake up the day after his devastating accident and say, “OK, I’ll just be a dentist or a pilot or a college professor instead.”

But what I felt as much as anything watching this movie was an urge to grab him and tell him that the world is far larger than he’s ever imagined and his future is far more open than he’s ever imagined. Yeah, it’s tough when you grow up in a family that’s scraping to get by, and your mother’s dead and your sister’s handicapped, and no doubt the area schools are subpar, and you’re living in a Republican-dominated era where any governmental programs that might give someone not already rich a chance at a decent life are vilified and always in danger of elimination. But you’re not going to tell me that there are no scholarships, no mentors, no jobs with a significant prospect of advancement, no online resources, nothing that can give someone like him an alternative to a future of booze, slot machines, and inescapable poverty.

Because the other thing that I was most conscious of while watching The Rider, besides the limited imagination that Brady and the others in this sometimes stifling environment have when it comes to alternatives to the one dream of riding the rodeo to the big time, is just what an impressive, likable, admirable, talented, promising human being Brady is. Not rodeo rider, but human being. So even if it might be a stretch to say that certain people who grow up in difficult circumstances have the potential to lead successful, productive, happy lives, it is not a stretch at all to say it about Brady.

Clearly he’s a very bright, articulate guy. He manifests a high level of responsibility, maturity, and strength of work ethic in his approach to his job at the store, in spite of it representing failure and an unacceptable future to him.

But what stands out most of all about him is his capacity for empathy, the way he naturally is interested in others and their lives, has compassion for them, and wants to understand and beneficially connect with them.

There is example after example of this in the film, in what are typically the most powerful scenes precisely because of how his empathy shines through in them.

Let’s start with non-humans. There are multiple scenes of Brady working with rebellious horses, horses that their owners say that no trainer seems to be able to get through to. He proves to have the magic touch with them.

It’s not really a matter of “breaking” them, in the sense a macho kind of “you have to show them who’s boss so they’ll obey you.” Yeah, he has a firmness with them at certain steps in the process, but primarily he seeks to understand them and to persuade them that he understands them. Rather than trying to defeat their fear, their anger, their defiance, he empathizes with them and respects them. His tone of voice is generally a soft, calming, coaxing one.

He’s terrific with his little sister. He speaks to her on a level she can understand and respond to, but it’s not a patronizing kind of thing. He’s aware she has limitations—who doesn’t?—and he tailors his approach to her accordingly.

You know, most people are just so much more conscious of their own feelings, the needs they want met in a given interaction, etc. But he—when he’s with his sister, for instance—is equally or more focused on the other person.

I mentioned his brief encounter, in the store where he is working, with a young boy who looks up to him as a hero. Despite all that he is dealing with—the uncertainty, anger, panic, etc. over his injury and its effects on his future—he makes sure this interaction is the best it can be for the boy. He is gracious and cooperative, and he encourages the boy to follow his dreams. He knows what a big deal it is for a child to meet someone he idolizes, and he wants to be sure to make this not a disillusioning but an inspiring encounter for him.

Maybe the prime example of his empathy is his relationship with fellow rodeo rider Lane Scott. Lane evidently was an arrogant, cocky (not in an obnoxious way, but more in a charismatic, charming Muhammad Ali way; he was quite popular with the ladies) rider who embraced stardom before he was even more severely injured than Brady. (I assumed—and I thought the film said this—that he too was injured in a rodeo accident, but I later read online that he was actually injured in a car accident.)

He is not completely paralyzed, but he’s pretty much non-functional. He has minimal control of his body. Mostly he just shakes in a palsied manner. (The sad thing is he is another person playing himself, so in real life he’s completely messed up like that too.)

He’s kind of an older brother figure to Brady, someone whom he looked up to and was proud to be following on the same path to rodeo success. He could always see his own future in Lane; now of course that takes on a much different, more painful meaning. Given that, it wouldn’t be surprising if Brady avoided him entirely. And yet he doesn’t turn away.

Instead he proves to be an awesome friend. He visits Lane in the hospital regularly, and tries to keep his spirits up. As emotional a scene as any in the movie is when he props up Lane in a sitting position and talks him through pantomiming a ride on a bronco.

Because, again with his extraordinary empathy, he knows exactly what his friend needs, which is to be taken back in his mind to when he was on top of the world.

Brady is still young, and there’s still a lot he needs to work through in dealing with the changes in his life and future that have been compelled by his injury. But you really hope that he’ll come to understand that rodeo was merely one way he could be extraordinary, and that accepting that that door has closed does not have to mean living the kind of hopeless, dead end life he associates with his father and most of the adults in his community. If he doesn’t let this defeat him and plunge him into depression and alcoholism or whatever, and he doesn’t let it drive him to make the stupid and reckless decision to resume his rodeo career where even one routine fall could well kill him or leave him like his friend Lane (which arguably is worse than being dead), there are many futures available to him that aren’t a matter of “settling” but are every bit as good as, if not better than, that first dream.

Whether it’s as a veterinarian, a doctor, a counselor, a teacher, a writer, or whatever, with his empathy, his patience, his compassion, and his intellect, he’s going to add a great deal of positive energy to the world, if he lets it happen. And there’s no reason to limit that to career; think what an amazing parent he could be.

I read in a review of The Rider the claim that by enabling us to understand Brady and the community in which he lives, we appreciate just how awful is the choice he is facing: to return to rodeo and have a strong chance of getting killed, or to die more slowly and painfully over the course of decades, living a meaningless, miserable life.

But I want to say that even though Brady himself sometimes sees his options in that same way, this is a false dilemma. There’s more out there for him. Giving up a dream doesn’t have to mean giving up dreaming.

Solid movie. Touching, intelligent, thought-provoking, with a truly impressive, inspiring man at its center.