Drawn from the lives of real people who portray themselves, Chloé Zhao’s “The Rider” achieves what cinema is capable of at its best: It reproduces a world with such acuteness, fidelity, and empathy that it transcends the mundane and touches on the universal.
In one such glimpse of sublimity, a group of young Native American rodeo riders drink beer, roughhouse, and sing songs in the immensity of the Badlands surrounding the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, in South Dakota. When dusk lights the uncanny landscape, they gather around a fire, talk about injuries and riding through the pain, and recall anecdotes about Lane (Lane Scott as himself), a fellow cowboy who is now a paraplegic after being thrown while bull-riding. Their memories and fears give way to a prayer — a rare instance of a film achieving a genuine religious moment.
One of the riders is Brady (Brady Jandreau, a non-actor playing a character based on himself), and Lane’s fate resonates with him not just because they are close friends but because he has also suffered a devastating injury. His skull fractured when he was thrown from a horse in a rodeo event; he now has a metal plate in his head and has been warned by doctors not to ride again. The next fall, they tell him, might paralyze or kill him.
Nonetheless, Brady climbs into the saddle again as soon as he has recovered sufficiently. He’s determined to ride despite the advice of his widower father, Tim (Tim Jandreau, Brady’s real-life father), who is a genial gambler, and his sister Lilly (Brady’s real-life sister), who has Asperger’s Syndrome and whose sunny, common sense remarks serve as the voice of reason.
But even when his hand seizes up uncontrollably from his lingering brain injury, Brady sees no other choice but to persevere. He’s achieved celebrity on the rodeo circuit. It’s part of his identity, the basis of his self-esteem. As he points out, a horse is put down when it’s so damaged it can no longer run or jump or do the things that horses do. “But I’m a person,” he says, “and I’ve got to live.”
Zhao turns material that might have been treacly and simple-minded into an allegory of male identity — reminiscent of “Lonely Are the Brave” (1962) and “Brokeback Mountain” (2005) — with the quality of myth. Her neorealist style allows for such astonishing, authentic sequences as when Brady tames a wild horse, or bonds with his sister, or visits his friend Lane at a rehab facility where they communicate in sign language. Such epiphanies might break your heart, but they affirm the human capacity to prevail.
Written and directed by Chloé Zhao. Starring Brady Jandreau, Tim Jandreau, Lilly Jandreau, Lane Scott. At Coolidge Corner, Kendall Square, West Newton. 103 minutes. R (language and drug use).