The Space Between
Movie: Drama – The Rider
Directed by Chloé Zhao
Starring Brady Jandreau, Tim Jandreau, Lily Jandreau, and Lane Scott
I’ve always felt cheated by the term “docudrama.” It’s a word that’s always conjured up silly fancies in my head of something truly special, a new kind of movie born from the best elements of both dramatic fiction and the documentary, a hybrid. Drama offers the viewer theme, symbolism, subtext, and the endless artificial devises of cinema to explore the human condition in all its truth and beauty, while documentaries find truth and beauty in the lives and struggles of real people as recorded through the journalist’s lens. But drama, despite this profound ability to convey higher truths through storytelling, distances itself from these truths because we know they are conveyed through the telling of lies and the altering of reality for dramatic purpose. Documentaries, conversely, sacrifice the power of a well-crafted script, of staging, and performance, for what is often a series of talking heads.
What we usually get when a movie is labeled a docudrama, is a work of dramatic fiction that’s slightly less loosely-based on historical facts than the usual cinematic “true story,” but still altered for the sake of effect and narrative convenience. Many of these are fine films but they generally feel as staged as any fictitious drama and haven’t the slightest hint of a documentary about them. Silly fancies aside, wouldn’t it be great, if one movie could be the best of both, a movie with themes, progressive character development, and dramatic narrative structure that doesn’t merely employ less obvious artifices, but seems somehow to be documenting real time events? A movie that avoids awkward actor moments that subtly render a great scene false?
Chloé Zhao’s The Rider is such a movie. The Chinese American filmmaker has written and crafted a film so unique in tone that it seems at times to exist in the nebulous, uncharted space between drama and documentary. It plays like a drama, a quiet, thoughtful, contemporary western character study. Its narrative is partly fictitious. It’s smartly written. Its leads are engrossing, their struggles compelling. And there are dreamy touches of visual poetry and cinematic artistry throughout the film. Yet there is a unique sense of reality that pervades the film as well as specific documentary-like moments that flow seamlessly from the narrative. The fusion is exhilarating. I’ve never experienced a movie quite like it and I doubt you have either.
The Rider’s realism is embodied in the film’s three leads, Brady, Tim and Lily Jandreau, three real people playing characters based largely on themselves in a story which, although fictitious, is infused with real events from their real lives and filmed with the seemingly unscripted nuance of a captured moment. Brady Jandreau was a real-life rodeo star, a bull rider who suffered a serious career-threatening head injury in his early 20s. Tim Jandreau is his real-life father, and Lily, his real-life sister, a high-functioning autistic teen. In the film they’re called the Blackburns, and all three deliver convincing, even memorable performances. They aren’t actors, they’re just incredibly comfortable being themselves on camera. They relate to each other as a real family and while their interactions on occasion seem scripted, the authenticity of their bond is always present.
But beyond the grounding presence of the Jandreau’s, the film is infused with scenes of documentary-like effect that flow naturally from the story and yet never seem out of place. Early in the film, a group of real-life bull riders, including Brady Jandreau, sit around a campfire, each relating his worst hit, or injury, to the group. Their stories play like confessions to an interviewer. It’s a perfect introduction to the world these characters inhabit, establishing the comaraderie, the mutual love of horse and sport, the dogged refusal to give up the glory no matter the cost, that are all important elements of Brady’s struggle and the rider’s life in general. These are men who define themselves by what they do. Without it, they see themselves as lesser men. Later in the film, in a series of stunning training sequences, life and art become one and the result is something warm and poetic, beautiful and truthfully real. These scenes exist of little more than Jandreau breaking horses. The camera here is essentially documenting real events while simultaneously revealing much about the non-actor/actor/protagonists’ character, about his profound bond to the animals, and the intense way in which his masculine identity is tied to them. It’s in these scenes that the film most perfectly and iridescently blends fact and fiction.
As Brady slowly heals from his severe head wound and the neurological complications that come with it, he’s faced with the possibility that he may never ride again. He’s goaded by his peers, who taunt him about quitting and see his possible retirement as a threat to their own illusions about the sport, . To them giving up is not an option. But their insistence rings hollow. Even as they vow their loyalty to the cause, they acknowledge and remember their hero Lane Scott, a real rodeo celebrity who suffered severe life-altering neurological damage from a car accident. Scott, playing himself without a name change, represents for Brady, the dark side of his sport, the tragic human symbol of what can happen when things go terribly wrong. Poignant and defiantly hopeful, his scenes with Jandreau suggest the complexity of Brady’s conflict. Brady comforts and nurtures his fallen friend in the only way he knows how, through halfhearted encouragements of an impossible return to glory. But the encouragements are as much for himself as he faces the possibility of a future with out riding.
Jandreau takes center screen for much of the movie’s running time and it’s uncanny how deeply we connect to him. Zhao and Jandreau were friends before this film and before his injury. They met on the set of her previous film, Songs My Brothers Taught Me, where he worked behind the scenes as a ranch hand on the movie’s Lakota Sioux reservation setting. (The Jandreau’s are also Lakota Sioux.) The director is filming subjects she knows, and she’s clearly used that familiarity to set her lead non-actor and his cohorts at ease. I’ve said many times that a great performance starts with the eyes. It’s in these proverbial windows to the soul that a character establishes residence in the actor. The character is either present there or not. It can’t be faked and with Jandreau there’s no need for it to be. He’s the real thing.
It’s both intriguing and satisfying that a film that understands the internal life of the male ego so deeply was both written and directed by a woman. This is the promise of diversity – that not only are women and minorities given a chance to tell their own stories but to tell the stories of others as well, including hopefully, the stories of white people, just as so many white people have told their stories, usually through a white protagonist ala Dances with Wolves and Amistad. But The Rider isn’t notable merely because Zhao is Chinese and her subjects are Native American. The movie understands masculinity in a way that films by men rarely do and there are no judgments, no parody, no irony. Zhao respects and sympathizes with and respects her subjects and like a documentary filmmaker, she trusts them to be compelling on their own. Her script and direction offer little emotional commentary via music or editing — the non-actors/characters play their lines, the camera records, the non-actor/characters live their stories, real and fictional, on screen. Zhao has become both dramatist and journalist.
I love all kinds of movies. Subject, style and genre are irrelevant. Great filmmaking is great filmmaking. But I will always have a special place in my heart for a slowly-paced character study, a considered look at internal conflict told with a subtle voice and thoughtfully portrayed by fine actors. The Rider is that kind of movie and as such will likely find a limited audience. My hope is that it will garner an Oscar nomination for best picture, which at this point seems a distinct possibility, given its critical acclaim. It deserves the attention. And It would be a shame if wider audiences didn’t discover it. It has the power, I believe, to appeal to a wider adult audience than the art house crowd to which it has been marketed, particularly with adult men who I believe will strongly identify with the film’s protagonist and its themes. Currently available for streaming, The Rider is an engrossing, low-key story about cowboys, horses, family, love, remorse, and manhood. It’s a fine American film, the kind of movie I go to the movies for, and a movie I can call a docudrama without cringing.