Cinema might have a worthy successor to early Terrence Malick in Chloe Zhao, whose second feature "The Rider" is a spiritual and poetic journey into the fading world of the Lakota cowboy, starring the real people who inspired her film.
As in her first, the beautiful "Songs My Brothers Taught Me," which was also set on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, Zhao transports us to the badlands of South Dakota to tell the story of a rodeo cowboy who must give up his dream after suffering a devastating brain trauma during competition.
Brady Jandreau, a Lakota cowboy and member of the Lower Brule Sioux Tribe, plays a fictionalized version of himself, Brady Blackburn, in the film. Jandreau was actually thrown from a horse which then stomped on his head during a rodeo in 2016. He was in a coma for three days and now has a metal plate in his head and lingering effects from the trauma.
In "The Rider," we meet Brady soon after the incident, as he's taking the staples out of his own skull and adjusting, poorly, to a new life of caution, away from the energy and excitement and danger of the rodeo, on which he had staked his identity. Brady lives in a mobile home with his dad, Wayne (played by his real life father Tim Jandreau), who gambles and drinks too much but has a good heart, and teenage sister Lilly (also his real sister), who has Asperger Syndrome.
Brady seems somewhat in denial, and his friends don't seem to understand the gravity of the situation, either.
"By NFL standards, I should be dead," Brady explains one night out by the campfire, drinking with his buddies. But they respond to him like his injury is temporary, like he just needs to brush it off and power through the pain, "like a cowboy," one says.
Brady is clearly lost in this new reality. He understands more than most what life looks like after injury, often visiting his friend Lane (Lane Scott), a once daredevil who is in rehab and can no longer walk or speak after his own rodeo accident.
Zhao clearly has a deep affection for her subjects who have so graciously let her into their lives, and, with almost documentary rigor, exposes some of the difficult truths of life with disability. But there is also an abundance of grace and beauty within the hardships, too.
Her use of non-actors is often a plus, but it has its limits. Brady, while a deeply compelling and empathetic presence, who from certain angles looks like a distant cousin to Chris Pratt, can appear a little blank at times when the camera just lingers on him in close-up. He's strongest and most natural in his normal routine, training horses, or interacting with Lane or Lilly.
Its examination of the cowboy masculinity that leads Brady and his peers to seek a life of thrills and danger only scratches the surface, but you'll be surprised at how intoxicating and enveloping it is, right down to the on-the-nose metaphors. "The Rider" is a story of death and rebirth and cements Zhao as one of the most promising and humane filmmakers to come on the scene in some time. Like Sean Baker, she takes her camera to parts of the country that many of us rarely see and even more rarely take the time to consider. Zhao and "The Rider" are the real deal.
"The Rider," a Sony Pictures Classics release, is rated R by the Motion Picture Association of America for "language and drug use." Running time: 103 minutes. Three stars out of four.