Last night my wife and I saw The Rider. If you’re from South Dakota, go see it. If you’re not from South Dakota, too bad for you… and go see it.
A Chinese woman educated in London and New York comes to Pine Ridge to make a movie about rodeo with South Dakotans who’ve never acted. Oh sure, that’ll work.
And it did. It does. Dang, it does.
[Paraphrases and spoilers ahead. You’ve been warned.]
The Rider tells the true story of a young Lakota rodeo rider named Brady who suffers a career-ending head injury in competition. We see the rodeo mishap in phone-video flashback; the movie opens on Brady, his first morning in his own bed after leaving the hospital, prying staples from his scalp with a knife, taking his pills, and—the crux of the movie—trying to figure what to do next for himself and his family.
Brady’s family lives in the Badlands—for visual artists, the most ironically named lands in the world. In an early scene, Brady walks out from the family’s mobile home, off toward an imposing Badlands fortress of sandstone. I leaned over to my wife and whispered, “Run for the stronghold!” She giggled—she likes Thunderheart, another good South Dakota movie, as much as I do. But by the end, I could see that The Rider one-ups Thunderheart and goes toe-to-toe with Dances with Wolves for Best South Dakota Movie Ever.
What makes this South Dakota movie so great?
It’s not just the long shots of the Badlands and the vast, unbroken sky (although Zhao gets shots of that sky in which the clouds and moon don’t just appear but perform). I became convinced that The Rider is a great movie around a quarter of the way in. Brady and three of his rodeo friends are out on a sandstone outcrop, jumping over a campfire, drinking beer, and howling at the quarter moon. The three friends are wearing their cowboy hats; Brady, still recovering, wears a hood and doesn’t run off toward the moon with his friends. They sit and tell stories, boys making themselves men and brothers by firelight with coarse language about rides and injuries and women. They talk about real men riding through busted ribs and arms; Brady says with typical restraint, “A brain is different than ribs.”
And then the boys pray. The seeming elder of the group, a stringy twenty-something rider who at the beginning of the scene jumps through the fire with his decal-plastered guitar, asks God to help Brady and keep their brothers safe.
And then the elder plays his guitar and sings for his friends. They sit and listen, still and somber in whatever thoughts the lonely, meaningful music brings.
A friend who watched the movie said she was surprised when they prayed. She didn’t expect that jarring contrast. Director Zhao surprises us like that for a reason. (Everything in a movie, in any text, is for a reason.) In those few minutes, the director shows us men more complicated than we expected, moving from the projection of easy, noisy outward machismo to their very real affection, hopes, and fears, to the struggles of real manhood.
A second mark of The Rider‘s greatness is its core metaphor. Brady’s brain injury causes his right hand to seize up. Every now and then, after taking hold of something, Brady has to pry his fingers loose with his left hand. In one scene, Brady is training a horse (more on that ahead), and his hand seizes up on the rope. He can’t let loose, and the horse is backing away skittishly, and we’re all afraid that horse will drag Brady right across the corral and do him in.
Cut from that scene to a later moment, after a doctor has told Brady he can’t risk riding horses at all, and someone tells him, you have to let it go.
You get it, right? The injury demands that Brady let go of his past. Yet his injury makes it impossible for him to let go.
Also making The Rider great: horses. I’m not a horse guy, but I could see the horses and the treatment of horses in this movie are something special. Like with those clouds and the moon, director Zhao somehow finds horses who can act. She lets her camera focus and linger on the horses, and the horses respond. They express themselves. In a scene where Brady’s old horse Gus is sold and trailered up, Brady steps out of the trailer, out of the frame, leaving Gus alone in the trailer. Gus looks off camera, toward where his boy has left, wonders how this can be… then turns away from the camera, to the knotted rope holding him to the trailer before the new owner pulls away. That’s a Supporting Actor Oscar.
The film also takes time to show Brady training a horse in a way that breaks the standard Western paradigm. Brady doesn’t swagger up à la John Wayne to show the horse who’s boss. He doesn’t perform some mystical wizardry—wiggle your fingers while the director edits in some woozy Theremin music, and the horse does pirouettes. Brady doesn’t break horses with machismo or magic. Brady works hard and sensitively to communicate with the horse, to make that intelligent beast understand, trust, and ultimately follow him. The process takes time; we see the light change from shot to shot in a scene as patient as the horse trainer must be.
Even though, as I said, I’m not a horse guy, Brady’s work with the horses felt real.
To make sure I wasn’t imagining things, I checked with Billie Sutton, who knows a thing or two about rodeo and horses. He’s seen The Rider. He knows Brady’s family and other characters in the movie—the real people the movie depicts. Sutton says the horse action and this movie are real. The Rider is authentic.
That’s the word that kept swimming into my head throughout the movie: authentic.
That authenticity is everywhere in The Rider. Director Zhao draws that authenticity from people who are not actors. The “actor” playing Brady is really Brady, who really did rodeo, who really suffered a devastating injury, who really lived… well, a lot of what happened in this film. The father and sister in the film are Brady’s real father and sister. The rodeo star who suffered a far worse injury, Lane Scott, really is Lane Scott, who’s in a wheelchair and can’t speak (but clouds, moon, horses—Lane can act). Zhao gets these people to relive their real lives and make it look real… which may sound easy, but turn on a camera in your house and ask your family to act like themselves… for 105 minutes… as they re-enact some of the hardest moments of their lives.
Zhao makes that work. At not one moment in the film did I feel that any person on camera was overacting, or underacting, or in any way letting us down and failing to tell a gripping, wrenching story. I didn’t have to make excuses for anyone on screen. My love for the performances in this movie is not something nice I say because I might see these folks at the grocery store. Brady, his family, his friends—they give great performances, because they give real performances.
Those real performances capture real culture, real South Dakota culture, real Lakota culture. As Dances with Wolves showed life in West River among the Lakota and the first whites they met in the 1860s, and as Thunderheart showed the lives of their descendants in conflict in the same place in the 1970s, The Rider shows us the lives and mixing culture of Lakota and whites in that screen-storied place now, in the 2010s. To its credit, The Rider doesn’t wander off as maybe Dances with Wolves and Thunderheart do to editorialize, to glorify Lakota culture, or to resort to the magical shamanism of a spirit telling the hero to run for the stronghold for salvation. The director tells a story about a man in deep conflict; in the process, she observes and portrays the culture in which that man has grown up, and she does so in sensitive and honest detail. That culture just happens to be us, South Dakota, which I think is pretty cool.
Oh yeah—and the movie has Lynn’s Dakotamart. Any idiot can put Mount Rushmore in a movie; The Rider has Lynn’s Dakotamart. That’s a real South Dakota movie.
There’s a lot more to South Dakota than the Badlands and rodeo. But as far as this film may seem from my town-slicker life of Internet, classrooms, politics, and bicycles, I watch The Rider and recognize with pride a great work of art depicting with unerringly honesty my neighbors and the state I love. The Rider is a great movie, as good as any other made in South Dakota. Go see it.
The Aberdeen Capitol Cinema (that’s the cool theater downtown) is keeping The Rider around for another week, through June 21. Showtime is 7 p.m. each night. There’s also a matinee Sunday, June 17, at 2 p.m.