Marvel Studios' superhero action film "Avengers: Infinity War" currently dominates the worldwide box office, but the movie studio recently showed its interest in a little indie film drawing an alternative audience: Chloé Zhao's "The Rider." Zhao took a meeting with Marvel for a proposed Black Widow spinoff, and it's no big surprise that didn't work out. Zhao's smarts and gift for capturing authenticity are obviously desirable commodities for producers of blockbusters, but there's a pretty big gap between superhero fantasies and Zhao's tales of life on the socioeconomic fringes.
So for now, let's celebrate Zhao's independence. In keeping with her previous film "Songs My Brothers Taught Me," "The Rider" takes place on South Dakota's Pine Ridge Reservation, where Zhao met Lakota saddle bronc rider and horse trainer Brady Jandreau. Intrigued by his story, Zhao crafted a film around it, with Jandreau essentially playing himself, albeit by the name of Brady Blackburn. Like Jandreau, Blackburn has suffered a fall from a bucking bronc and a cranial stomping that left him with a plate in the head. When the film opens, Blackburn is still nursing his wound and pushing his luck. His doctor insists another head injury could well kill the cowboy, but his work with horses is all he knows.
Zhao casts Jandreau's real father, Tim, as Blackburn's father, Wayne, and Jandreau's real sister Lilly as Blackburn's sister Lilly (both Lillys have Asperger's Syndrome). The Blackburns live hand to mouth, so there's a financial pressure for Brady to continue in his work. Compelling scenes of Jandreau breaking horses essentially qualify as documentary footage, but informed with our intimate knowledge of the trainer's thoughts, love of what he does, and fears of losing everything. As with any film starring nonprofessional actors, Zhao's docu-fiction approach requires an adjustment and forgiveness of a certain amount of awkwardness. But such early concerns quickly fade as the cast, and the film, finds its legs.
If the plot doesn't ever get more complicated than "will he or won't he?" go on risking his life, "The Rider" does examine some of the pitfalls of the old-school definitions of American masculinity. What is a man without his work, without his earning power, without his competition? As an "American Indian" who's also a rodeo cowboy, Jandreau/Blackburn also occupies an ironic space, his ancestral culture slowly but surely succumbing to another fading tradition: the American West, embodied by a rodeo that's inhumane to animals and perhaps to people as well.
Pressing the point is Blackburn's friend Lane (Lane Scott), in intensive rehab after suffering severe head trauma from a bull-riding incident (in real life, Scott incurred his brain damage from a car accident). Amidst a small brotherhood of other male rodeo friends, Blackburn can no longer simply kick back; seeing his friends means contemplating his choices and how he's viewed in the community. In the ways they languish, Jandreau and Scott could just as well be veterans of foreign wars. "The Rider" acknowledges the tender side of masculinity, of brotherly love and supportive friendship, but also recognizes the damage men can inflict on themselves and others just by trying to men.