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Cowboy Indian

‘The Rider’ is a modern American portrait of a Native American life

Brady Jandreau in “The Rider”

Sony Pictures Classics

When Barry Jenkins evangelizes a movie on Twitter, heed the gospel.

In the fall of 2017, the “Moonlight” director began to tweet gushing praise for “The Rider,” a film set in South Dakota’s Sioux country that was just beginning its tour on the festival circuit. It won the top prize in the Directors’ Fortnight program at Cannes Film Festival.

It’s easy to see why the award-winning filmmaker felt such an affinity toward it. Despite telling a different story from a different world, “The Rider” fundamentally has so much in common with Jenkins’s landmark Best Picture Oscar winner. Both are explorations of a young man’s identity crisis, each is set in a niche minority community, and they’re both told with a poetic, lyrical lament.

Yet while Jenkins layered “Moonlight” with autobiographical undertones, “The Rider” is a modern portrait of a Native American male told by a native Chinese woman. Chloé Zhao equals Jenkins’s feat but within a foreign experience. That juxtaposition heralds Zhao (in only her second feature) as a writer/director of profound empathic acuity and one of the world’s premiere emerging cineastes.

Cowboy and Indian merge into one in “The Rider,” the story of Brady, a young Lakota rodeo horseman who’s sidelined with a brutal head injury. The stitched incision across his scalp is his most obvious scar, but more concerning are occasional seizures and locked muscle control that could threaten his burgeoning career.

Grieving the possible loss of a life not lived, Brady wrestles with questions that hover and haunt with existential dread. How long do you live in limbo? Should you hold on or move on? Who are you when your identity is taken away, especially when you come from nothing and your gifts are all you have? And what’s the bigger risk: tempting fate or walking away from it?

Eschewing sentiment but deeply sensitive, Zhao sets this within Brady’s rural reservation life. His mother passed away years ago. He butts heads with his dad but shares a special bond with his sister, who is mentally handicapped. He also visits a rodeo friend who’s now quadriplegic.

This cast of amateurs delivers raw, heartfelt performances, primarily because “The Rider” is loosely based on their lives. Brady is played by Brady Jandreau, and his fictional father and sister are played by his real-life family, as is his friend Lane Scott. Zhao nurtures their experiences–Brady’s especially–with tender veracity.

Zhao then marries that intimate eye to an epic scope, painting this tale of longing against a sweeping backdrop of Americana in the very Badlands of Kevin Costner’s “Dances With Wolves.”

As a man of simple religious beliefs, Brady must not only contend with a potential loss of identity but, more acutely, his God-given purpose. As he struggles through this valley, he gets a tattoo that becomes the film’s most plaintive metaphor: a cross covering his back, with a horse intertwined. In one image, that’s the journey of the soul “The Rider” takes us on: a poignant spiritual odyssey where the love in your heart becomes the cross that you carry.

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