It’s no easy thing for Brady Blackburn to watch the video of a horse bucking him off and then cracking his skull with a lashing hoof. But frankly, just looking in the mirror and tracing the long, raw and misshapen scar on the side of his head is worse.
A neat row of staples holds his scalp together.
Beneath that, a neat plate of metal holds his brains together.
And it’s all kinda surreal.
It wasn’t supposed to be this way. Sure, accidents happen in the rodeo arena. But it’s always supposed to be the other guy who’s left in a coma. The one who’s sloppy. The one who hasn’t worked hard enough. The guy who doesn’t know his stuff. Brady is none of those things. He’s been celebrated. He was going places. Ask anyone in the rodeo world.
Now he’s going nowhere. He keeps telling everybody that he’s just healing up. But as the weeks pass, he starts to see troubling things: the way he gets sick whenever he’s on horseback, for instance. And the way his right hand clenches up in what his doctor calls “partial complex seizures.”
“No more riding,” his doc instructs. But she might as well say, No more thinking, no more dreaming, no more … breathing. It’s pretty much all the same thing as far as Brady’s concerned.
So as he stands on a grassy hillside, the sun setting and a few rumbling clouds hovering on the horizon, the young man can’t help but stare out and wonder, What kind of life do you have, if all you live for … is taken away?
In spite of his seemingly freefalling life, Brady is consistent and decent. He’s a loving brother to his mentally challenged young sis. “I’ll take care of you, Lil,” he tells Lilly during a difficult stretch. “I’ll take care of you, too,” she replies with a sweet, untroubled sigh.
Brady’s a solid friend as well. Even when he’s at his lowest, he faithfully visits a brother-like compatriot named Lane, who’s struggling with even more severe rodeo-related disabilities. He tenderly aids and encourages Lane in his physical therapy.
In fact, most of these rodeo cowboys embrace a brotherhood of support for one another. “We’re all one in this together,” one of their number proclaims.
Brady and his father, Wayne, have a difficult relationship—exasperated by Wayne’s drinking and poor financial choices. But both men are able to find small ways to show that they still care.
[Spoiler Warning] The film subtly deals with the fact that Brady feels he has nothing to live for and might purposely end his own life. But ultimately the young man chooses to live for the people in his life whom he loves most.
Brady and his friends all have a tangled sense of faith woven through their lives. They’ll be drinking and joking coarsely one minute, then break into prayer for one of their friends the next. Elsewhere, Brady offers a prayer of protection over his horse after it’s sold to a local buyer. We see Brady’s Bible on his dresser … next to a bottle of prescription pills and a handful of bullets. Brady gets a tattoo on his back of a large cross, overlaid with an image of his friend Lane riding a bull.
Some of Brady’s buds laugh about a sexual encounter one of them had. Wayne flirts with and hugs a female bartender at the local bar.
Brady’s mentally challenged teen sis, Lilly, hates the idea of having to grow up, and she flatly refuses to wear a bra.
We see real-world videos of both Brady and his good friend Lane riding in the rodeo. We see Brady’s fall from a bucking bronco with the head-damaging blow kept just out of view. We never see Lane’s more crippling fall from a bull, but the effect of the damage—transforming him from a robust youth in videos to a mere husk of himself with very little motor control—is strikingly evident.
Brady pries bloody staples out of his own head with a pair of scissors. He and his friends tell stories about their various broken bones and body-wracking injuries in the rodeo arena. It’s alluded that someone is contemplating suicide.
A horse gets caught up in barbed wire. We see the bloody aftermath—including a pool of blood on the ground, chunks of flesh and muscle in the barbed wire and a close-up of the horse’s savaged and slashed-open leg. Wayne shoots the badly injured animal (offscreen).
More than 20 f-words and five s-words join a couple uses each of “d–n,” “h—,” “b–ch” and “a–.” Jesus’ name is misused once and God is combined with “d–n” once, too.
After his accident, Brady takes prescription meds a couple times. We see him smoke marijuana, alone and with others. Several others smoke and/or sell marijuana as well. One local horse dealer, for instance, pays part of a debt with a stash of weed.
Brady and his buds also sit around a campfire and get drunk on beer. Later, one of the friends tries to coax Lilly into drinking beer, but Brady angrily moves to protect her. Several people smoke cigarettes. Wayne appears to be an alcoholic. We see him and others drinking at a bar.
Brady vomits several times from the effects of his injury. On one occasion, he passes out after doing so. In spite of some terrible injuries, the rodeo guys’ macho mantra continues to be “ride through the pain.”
This film is not what you’d readily call entertaining. Not in the same sense as, say, some fantasy superhero flick. Or a swaggering, gun-blazing Western of yore. No, The Rider is a neo-Western that sits on a thought-provoking, windblown cinematic stretch somewhere between fiction and documentary.
The movie’s tale is loosely based on the real-life struggles of its bronco-riding Lakota star, Brady Jandreau. His actual friends and family members play the supporting roles around him. With this very real setting and cast of characters, director Chloe Zhao has crafted a film that spurs viewers to deeply ponder the concepts of masculine identity and personal loss.
“I believe God gives each of us a purpose,” Brady says late in the film. “For a horse, it’s to run out on the prairie. For a cowboy, it’s to ride.” When a horse is injured to the point that it will never be able to run again, the film tells us that the only humane and ethical thing to do is to put it down. But when a cowboy is just as badly broken as his steed, What then? it asks.
This slowly trotting movie contemplation is both immersive and emotionally wrenching. It’s also littered with enough real-world coarse language and flinch-worthy visuals to earn an R-rating that may prompt some viewers to pull back on the moviegoing reins.
After spending more than two decades touring, directing, writing and producing for Christian theater and radio (most recently for Adventures in Odyssey, which he still contributes to), Bob joined the Plugged In staff to help us focus more heavily on video games. He is also one of our primary movie reviewers.