Brady Jandreau on the set with director Chloé Zhao
director Chloé Zhao
THE RIDER A
USA (104 mi) 2017 ‘Scope d: Chloé Zhao
An essential work, an elegiac and ferociously personal film shot on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota, home of over 30,000 Oglala Lakota Sioux tribe members, not far from the Badlands, one of the most impoverished areas in the United States, where an endless landscape reveals the vast emptiness, but also a sacred beauty about something Native Americans hold dear, living in harmony with nature, where riding horses across the open plains is about the most natural thing in the world. Honoring a way of life that has existed for countless generations, the film is based on the real-life experiences of Brady Jandreau, an Indian rodeo cowboy who at age 20 survived a near-fatal head injury after being trampled by a horse in 2016. Playing himself (though the last name is changed to Blackburn), he is a handsome hero, showing the full range of his character throughout, generous to a fault, kind and open-hearted, with a fierce protective streak for his younger 15-year old sister Lilly (Lilly Jandreau), who is autistic, yet easily remains one of the more endearing and cheerfully upbeat characters in recent memory, while his father Wayne (Tim Jandreau) is sternly authoritative, yet financially challenged, renting a trailer out in the open plains, where it’s not easy making a living in such a desolate place. Fueled by poverty and addiction, the unemployment rate on the reservation hovers around 80%, the suicide rate is over four times the national average, while 49% of the population is on Food Stamps. Life expectancy, 48 years for men and 52 for women, is the second-lowest in the western hemisphere, behind only the poorest nation, Haiti, tuberculosis and diabetes rates are eight times the national averages, while the cervical cancer rate is five times more than the U.S. average. The infant mortality rate is 300% higher than the national average and the teen suicide rate is 150% higher than the national average. Addiction is endemic, where up to two-thirds of adults live with alcoholism, while one in four children are born with fetal alcohol syndrome, a neurological birth defect that causes irreversible physical and emotional defects that permanently scar the child. Most attribute the problem to a small town that sits 250 yards across the South Dakota state line, Whiteclay, Nebraska, population 12, which has been sitting there for over 100 years with four convenience stores that sell approximately 4 million cans of beer per year pouring exclusively into the reservation, which amounts to 11,000 cans of beer per day, literally feeding and profiting off of Indian addiction, despite the fact that it has been a dry reservation by tribal ordinance for over 120 years. Recently the Nebraska state liquor commission voted to temporarily revoke all four licenses to sell liquor in Whiteclay, while in September 2017, the Nebraska Supreme Court ruled unanimously to keep Whiteclay’s liquor stores closed (Liquid genocide: alcohol destroyed Pine Ridge reservation – then they ...). While that is a cultural aside, it generates a picture of poverty unlike any other, setting the stage for why young male pride means so much to an Indian nation.
Jandreau was one of several Lakota cowboys the director met while shooting her low-budget debut feature, Songs My Brothers Taught Me (2015), spending four years on the Pine Ridge Reservation making that film. Watching him train unbroken horses, however, mesmerized by how easily he calms wild horses, Zhao could see he has a gift, suggesting they make a film together, where much of the strongest footage allows viewers to see him in his element, guided by his own instincts, beautifully capturing the majestic quality of the animal, as throughout history, even before the arrival of the white man, Lakota Sioux Indians have revered horses, leading nomadic lives following rivers and migrating herds of buffalo throughout all seasons of the year. Stripped down to its essentials, Jandreau epitomizes the hard-scrabble way of life that exists here, who at a tender young age has reaped the rewards of rodeo riding, collecting ribbons and medals and prize money, along with the cowboy accoutrements collected along the way, belts, boots, chaps, ropes, and Stetson hats, along with signature jackets that memorialize certain events. Dressed in his cowboy finest, Jandreau is the spitting image of frontier strength and independence, knowing things only a handful of others can appreciate, among an exclusive club of young Indian rodeo heroes, seen in all the cowboy magazines, someone kids can look up to, a down to earth mythical hero that lives right there amongst them. But that all changed after suffering such a serious injury, cracking his skull, requiring a surgically implanted metal plate, leaving a large gash on his head, where early on we see him using a knife to gruesomely pick out the stitches in his head. Some of the aftereffects include seizures that travel down to his right hand, freezing up on him, where he can’t unloosen his grip, forced to peel his fingers off one by one. The opening sequence, however, is an experimental montage of stomping hooves and the defiant independence of wild horses running free, perhaps idealized in their beauty, which turns out to be a dream leading to the opening credits, with Jandreau lying in his hospital bed. It may feel improbable for a young Chinese-American woman to have such complete access to an Indian reservation, but she claims it’s easy for her to be accepted, eventually fitting right in, as she poses no threat. Born in Beijing, Zhao was sent to boarding school in London before finishing high school in America, inspired by viewing Wong Kar-wai’s HAPPY TOGETHER (1997), watching it again before film shoots, eventually attending film school at NYU. While Jandreau, his family and friends, all play themselves, this resembles the fictionalized documentaries of Jia Zhang-ke, revealing a searing authenticity with brief flashes of fiction thrown in to change or alter the mood. In this case, it’s almost entirely real-life, still recovering from his injury, with a bare-bones script written by the director to add narrative fluidity, but very few alterations, one of which involves Jandreau’s best friend, Lane Scott, another heavily decorated rodeo bull rider who was left paralyzed, unable to speak after an unfortunate accident. In real-life, this occurred as a result of a 2013 car crash, but the film romanticizes his injury, suggesting a bull rolled over him in competition, where he remains a mythical hero. With the words “Say I won’t, and I will” tattooed on his back, Lane is a central figure in Brady’s life, both small town heroes and cut from the same cloth. The patience he displays in visits to the rehab center with Lane are beyond belief, able to read letters conveyed through his fingers, extending them to words and phrases, where the genuine warmth and affection on display express something beyond friendship, beyond words, that could only be described as a profound and inexpressible love.
What makes this film so unique is the sacred territory it inhabits, like entering the Terrence Malick realm, where horses and the open plains define what it is to be human for a Lakota Sioux Indian, a thread that runs throughout this film, which is heartbreakingly real. Like his friend Lane, Jandreau’s rodeo days are over, or so he’s told over and over again, yet he knows that he’s meant to ride horses, “just as a horse is meant to run across the prairie,” where he has a will of an athlete to overcome all obstacles, to reach the winner’s circle, to show what it means to be a champion. Jandreau feels like it’s in his blood, that it’s as essential as the air he breathes, as it’s the one thing he excels at, reaching transcendent heights in the rodeo ring, if only for a brief moment, where he exudes courage and an indomitable spirit, refusing to allow mere mortality to keep him from reaching the hallowed grounds of the gods. Not sure if anyone has loved something as much as this kid loves horses, dreaming of them night and day, where the intoxicating visualization by cinematographer Joshua James Richards, the director’s life partner, remains ravishingly elevated throughout, with melancholic music by Nathan Halpern, turning this film into an elegiac memoriam for all that’s been lost, as after reaching such exalted heights, with Brady and Lane watching video footage over and over again of their rodeo exploits, reliving their proudest moments, Brady has to descend back down to the lowly state of working a soulless job as a supermarket clerk, stocking the shelves, doing dish work detail, mopping up the grounds, where it’s a humiliating challenge just to be an ordinary human living on a pittance part-time wage. Yet in the same breath, the time he spends with his mentally challenged sister is priceless, listening to her sing songs, promising to look after her, yet she’s the one that places little stick-em gold stars on his body as he sleeps. Brady continually argues with his tough guy father, who calls him stubborn, refusing to listen to anybody, who thinks he has a death wish, yet without a word one day buys his son a spectacularly beautiful unridden horse that he’s got his heart set on, a gesture so movingly open and revealing. If only the road to heaven were paved by good intentions. But this film is also filled with heartbreak, as near the beginning, Wayne is forced to sell Brady’s favorite horse, which is like giving away your best friend. And just when Brady’s health progress looks promising, as he’s back training horses, something he loves to do, his hand freezes up, where he can’t let go of the reins, allowing a horse to bump him in the head, causing a horrible setback, where he literally can’t get back on a horse again. Take away the thing someone loves the most and see how they respond. Particularly in this poverty-ridden culture, where there are so few role models that kids look up to, Brady’s bold heroism becomes his internalized anguish, his cross to bear, though perhaps also his salvation. Taught to fight through pain and weakness, he struggles against admitting any signs of vulnerability, yet ultimately the film is about scars and broken spirits, expressed with such beautiful lyricism and tenderness, a picture of poetic spirituality, where what it means to be a man shifts 360 degrees literally overnight, where it’s like learning to walk again, or imagine John Wayne in a John Ford western suddenly unable to ride a horse, as it poses a risk to his own life. A profoundly affecting work, unvarnished, void of artifice, probing under the surface, finding an altogether new language to express the unimaginable, Brady Jandreau is one of the untold stories that cinema can bring to light, with Zhao admirably doing him justice, finding his genuine nature, exploring that core inner realm of pride and glory, offering a sobering portrait of an identity crisis that literally asks and answers the existential question of what it means to be an Indian in today’s world after the things you do best have been stripped away, essentially a mirror image of the plight of the American Indians after the inexhaustible reach of their land was taken away by a policy of genocide and Manifest Destiny.