How The Rider Reframes Cowboy Culture & Toxic Masculinity

“A lot of sports movies are about people who, in the end, win the game. . . . In the case of rodeo and Brady, the chance of him returning is very slim. But not a day goes by that this man has given up on the rodeo or continued to live in a way where he could be close to these animals. I really wanted to make a film that celebrates that, celebrates those who stay on the reservation, who make the tough choices in life, who keep going. I don’t think our culture celebrates that enough.” Chloe Zhao. Screenshot from The Rider/Sony Picture Classics

The Rider (2017) is an ambitious independent film addressing quintessentially American topics from the perspective of Chinese-born filmmaker Chloé Zhao. Like Brokeback Mountain (coincidentally by another Chinese director, Ang Lee), The Rider draws from the Western film genre in its setting and visual detail. And also like Brokeback, the film ultimately rests in the arena of melodrama. Unlike the earlier film, however, in The Rider the suffering of protagonist Brady Blackburn doesn’t involve romantic love, but the complexity of class and ethnic identity among those engaging in the dangerous sport of rodeo riding, which Native participants on reservations consider “a way out” of poverty and alcohol abuse. 

The story begins in the aftermath of a rodeo accident that has left Brady with a serious head injury; doctors have told him not to ride again. Although drawn by friends and his own desires to return to the sport, his future depends on the sacrifice necessary for him to stay alive and remain a source of support to his family.

Thus, The Rider melds two classic film genres — The Western, associated with the masculine, and the Melodrama, considered a feminine form — to offer contrasting perspectives on the life of the main character and the occupation he loves. Through this juxtaposition the filmmaker presents the struggles of Indigenous communities who must navigate the limitations of toxic masculinity and its association with the racially violent mythology of the American West.

The Rider’s Western inflection

Image from The rider of a young man in cowboy hat petting a horse
Brady slowly accustoms the horse to his touch. Screenshot/Sony Picture Classics

Chloé Zhao’s first film, Songs My Brothers Taught Me, was shot on the Lakota Sioux reservation next to Pine Ridge, South Dakota where teen suicides were epidemic. This early foray into the director’s signature style blended documentary and drama, with the main characters played by non-professional Native teens. While filming, Zhao also met rodeo star and horse trainer Brady Jandreau, who lived with his family on the reservation. Zhao reconnected with Brady after he recovered from a head injury resulting from a rodeo accident, and she worked with him to develop a project that would tap into his personal experience. She involved Brady’s father and sister, as well as his close friend and fellow brain injury survivor, Lane Scott, in the cast of what became The Rider.

Many scenes in The Rider offer timeless images of “the West.” The cinematography (by Joshua James Richards) has been compared with the films of Terrence Malick and inevitably references John Ford. Horse and rider are silhouetted against a broad sky, rolling hills, and rocky canyons. Brady Blackburn — Jandreau’s character — is often shot in golden light, wearing a cowboy hat and jeans. He also owns a pistol, though as we eventually see, it’s for his work with horses rather than gunfights. Visually, this is the stuff of the classic Western, a genre more recently challenged in revisionist films concerning its treatment of history and troubling ideologies of race and gender. Indeed, while the Western remains a complex signifier of American heterosexual masculinity, it has also been used ironically in films such as The Ballad of Little Jo  (see also Brower) and Dead Man, as well as Brokeback Mountain.

In The Rider, Brady’s “cowboy” identity is complicated by his Native roots and a seeming asexuality. Early on he’s established as a talented young cowboy, but also a seriously injured young man. He wakes up one morning and pries staples out of his head from surgery, tries to open his right hand clenched in a spasm, and vomits  — his body betraying his masculine self-image. And yet, in an unforgettable scene, Brady tames a horse that the owner hasn’t been able to approach. According to critic Godfrey Cheshire, this scene was unplanned and unscripted: for about 80 minutes, Zhao and cinematographer Richards kept filming as Brady Jandreau acquainted the horse with his smell, his touch, and eventually his weight. The scene in the film, edited to just a few minutes, has nothing to do with stereotypical masculinity, but rather with a sensitive, sensual, trusting connection between man and horse. We hear the horse’s owner saying, “I heard you had that touch.” This scene suggests a whole new perspective on the hardened “cowboy.”

The Rider also offers images of Western action and male camaraderie. An extended scene of Brady with his friends — all rodeo riders —  conflates their commitment to rodeo with boasts of male sexual prowess, and also seems integrated with their Native culture. The scene begins as a rowdy Western: Brady and friends gather around a campfire with guitars and physical horseplay, and they swap stories about rodeo injuries — Brady’s fractured skull, another’s broken ribs, others’ close calls. As the guys press Brady to get back into the rodeo, and “ride through the pain,” he counters, “Your brain’s a little different from your ribs.” 

These contemporary young men are devoted — we might say addicted — to dangerous behavior. Zhao has said, “I wasn’t interested in a romanticized version of Native Americans, or the cowboy way of life[, but rather] what is it actually like today for these young people.” In other words, despite the generic Western markers, Zhao’s film displays values and behaviors more akin to what sociologist Kathleen Miller observed among mainstream high school athletes playing team sports. Although most in her study identified as “athletes,” some called themselves “jocks” and strove for recognition of individual achievement and conformed “to masculine norms, …[showing] a propensity for violence, a ‘playboy’ attitude toward sexual relationships, an emphasis on winning, risk-taking, and interpersonal dominance.” 

In the campfire scene Brady doesn’t behave like a “jock,” but in later scenes, he basks in the recognition he receives from kids and adults on the reservation; he repeatedly watches video clips of his winning performances, culminating in his disastrous fall and head injury. And he still revels in the sport. He and his friends watch videos of Lane Scott’s performances before his accident, which also include Lane’s boasts of his “conquests,” suggesting he was a “toxic” personality. The guys celebrate his prowess in the rodeo and with the women, though he is now struggling with serious brain damage. The group says a prayer for Lane that combines Sioux and Christian spirituality. Throughout the film Lane remains a hero to Brady, who visits him regularly, reminding us what’s at stake as Brady recovers from his own injuries and secretly begins to try riding again, which lands him back in the hospital.  

 At first, the “dream” of being a rodeo rider seems to be what’s at stake. As the film progresses, though, we learn Brady’s story isn’t only about failed dreams, but also about what it means to sacrifice something that is a central part of young people’s culture on the reservation. And it’s a sacrifice necessary to avoid disability or death and keep his family together. 

Cowboy melodrama: suffering, isolation, domesticity

Dark close up of someone holding a phone that shows video of a rodeo
Brady watches videos of himself as a rodeo rider. Screenshot/Sony Picture Classics.

Similar to Brokeback’s increasing use of interiors, The Rider’s beautiful shots of the open desert alternate with scenes in the Blackburns’ small mobile home, Lane’s rehab facility, Brady’s hospital room, and the quick mart where he gets a job. Videos of Brady’s past performances are closed in by the small frames of computer and phone screens. Even the film’s opening extreme close-ups of a horse’s face as it tosses its head suggests the confinement of something beautiful and wild. These claustrophobic images of physical sequestration from all that Brady values and aspires to allude to the terrain of melodrama a move from the Western “masculine” world to the “feminine” world of domesticity  and relationships. 

Like all film genres, melodrama is more than visuals; it’s about family and the secrets, injuries, and losses that fester within. Before we meet Brady Blackburn’s friends, we’re introduced to his family, played by actor Brady Jandreau’s real-life family. Tim Jandreau plays Wayne Blackburn, Brady’s tough-talking dad who drinks and gambles the rent away, and Brady’s developmentally delayed sister, 15-year-old Lilly, plays Lilly Blackburn. Brady visits his mother’s grave (“Mari Blackburn”) early in the film, completing the picture of a broken, hard-scrabble family one that needs Brady’s judgment as well as his financial contribution, which in the past came from his rodeo winnings. When Wayne sells Gus, Brady’s favorite horse, to make the rent, Brady confronts him: “Where’s all the money go?  Slot machines, bars.” His dad throws back, “It’s not like you can ride anymore.” Paradoxically, Brady’s father also angrily chides him for trying to get back into riding, underscoring the parent/child conflict typical of melodrama. 

Apart from his dad, the most important people in Brady’s life, like him, suffer from brain-related issues or disability. His sister Lilly, a soulful confidante and companion to her brother, requires ongoing supervision despite her seeming independence. In one scene, Brady forcefully confronts one of his buddies trying to hit on her. Her father raises the topic of a bra for the 15-year-old girl, and she categorically refuses, cutting up the bra as she chats with her brother, later saying she wants to be 14, not 15. Wayne compares the two siblings: “Stubborn, just like your brother,” and indeed, both engage in denial. Later Brady confides in her: “it’s hard not rodeo-in’ anymore.” Lilly replies, “I know!” But he tells her he can train horses for a living now. “I’ll take care of you, Lil.”

A more wrenching comparison with Brady is his best friend Lane, now residing in a rehabilitation facility, partially paralyzed from a bull-riding accident and able to communicate only by ASL. Brady’s relationship with Lane is central to Brady confronting the new boundaries in his life. When he visits Lane, they watch the videos of his rodeo performances similar to Brady’s. Brady and rehab assistants help Lane get on a saddle set up for him, with Lane holding the reins and Brady holding the other end, talking him through a brief narrative of riding. Over the course of the film Brady’s devotion to Lane is traced in the process of getting a tattoo of the former bull rider on his back, even telling his buddies, “He’ll get there . . . He says he’s going to ride again in no time,” mirroring Brady’s denial about his own physical condition Lane is who Brady will be if he doesn’t stop riding.

In Brady’s visits with Lane and in the scenes of horse training, we see the young man’s gentle, “feminine” side. His struggle to move on after his life-changing injury is the melodrama of The Rider, and it is where female characters have brief, but significant roles. When Brady’s buddies pressure him to go back to rodeo, one of the few women in the group defends him for staying out of it. After a riding episode lands him back in the hospital, his female doctor explains that the hand cramps he’s experiencing indicate partial seizures, and she firmly tells him, “No more riding. No more rodeos.” Even his father, who has given mixed signals all along, does at times show parental concern, telling his son, “I’m your dad – you can talk to me. . . . Sometimes dreams weren’t meant to be.” 

And so Brady attempts a clean break with his obsession. He can’t bring himself to sell his rodeo gear, but offers it to a younger one of his buddies, James, who receives each item with reverence. The transaction over, however, Brady challenges the smaller man to wrestle with him, and reluctantly James agrees. Brady easily pins him, the young man shouts his concession, but Brady continues to hold him down. By the time he releases his opponent, James is near tears, and Brady only calls “Cowboy up!” after him. This is a low point for Brady, who has shown such sensitivity with animals, his sister, and his friend Lane. Having sacrificed his rodeo gear  he shows the toxic behavior Kathleen Miller describes, coming from insecurity and grief. Later, after a visit with Lane, he weeps. Back home the camera scans his room: we see shots of rodeo belt buckles, Brady taking pain meds, then in bed with his pistol. 

In the next scene, though, he’s back at work at the quick mart, greeting community members who know him as the rodeo star, and he perpetuates his image, asking a boy if he’s riding pony broncs yet. Off work, he whistles for Apollo, the wild, unpredictable horse Wayne inexplicably has bought for his son, who has expertly trained the horse at his peril. Brady finds the horse badly injured by a tangle of barbed wire, but he can’t shoot Apollo any more than he can shoot himself, so it’s Wayne who puts down the injured horse. Later Brady tells Lilly, “I got hurt like Apollo did, but I’m a person so I didn’t have to get put down.”

Facing the truth

Close up from the rider of a hand holding a rope
Brady’s hand cramps on the rope he’ll use to ride the bronc. Screenshot/Sony Picture Classics.

Fans of Bette Davis films of the forties, Douglas Sirk’s high-style melodramas of the fifties, or recent TV series such as Bloodline know that the conclusion of a melodrama often involves a crisis that forces a public revelation of secrets. These open confrontations with the truth can happen in a court scene or a social gathering in which a “new” family is forged. In the process some characters are lost or disgraced, but the survivors get a new, albeit tentative, start. In contrast to the Western hero’s solitary movement away from civilization in the final reel, the melodrama affirms society and family, even if the individual suffers to achieve a place in them.

The ultimate crisis in the film occurs over Brady’s decision to go back to the rodeo. His father tries to talk him out of it, but Brady confronts Wayne’s hypocrisy: “What happened to ‘Cowboy up! Grit your teeth! Be a man!’” In short cuts Zhao shows  the excitement of the rodeo – the crowd, the broncos battering the gate – but from Brady’s point of view we see the horse he is to ride, his family, his friends, another look at his family, and then his hand in spasm. He practices holding the rope that will be connected to the bucking horse; his hand will not release it. His friends say, “Let’s go!” After a beat, Brady says “Good luck!” to his friend, who shakes his hand and replies, “You, too, cowboy.” 

At the last minute, Brady drops out of the competition, effectively ending his rodeo career. This choice to leave the rodeo redefines his relationships with friends and family as well as his self-image. He visits Lane and shows him the completed tattoo of his friend, and Lane signs “Don’t give up on your dreams.” But having preserved the image of his friend as rodeo star, Brady begins to face the reality of Lane’s condition and his own.

As some critics have observed, because of its location and cast, The Rider combines the imagery of “cowboys and Indians.” Indeed, it suggests the blend of Western myth and culture in contemporary Native communities as manifested in male behavior that is not simply “toxic,” but a profoundly death-defying practice. The Rider suggests a “way out” in a way that disrupts the resolution embedded in the Western genre and in American ideology more generally. Brady’s story ultimately becomes melodrama, highlighting  the transformative power of family and community, rather than bootstraps mythology.

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