Chloe Zhao’s The Rider: Authenticity & Identity

Chloe Zhao’s The Rider was released in UK cinemas last week, and I was lucky enough to see a preview of the film, hosted by Birds Eye View. A panel including a brain injury survivor and an equestrian therapy facilitator talked at length, post screening, about the complexities of protagonist Brady’s condition, his role in the world and his identity post injury.

The strange world of The Rider is seen through the eyes of Brady, a rodeo rider and horse trainer. Though scripted, Zhao’s film blurs the lines between fact and fiction in a way that’s reminiscent of Samira Makhalmbaf’s work – in particular The Apple. The two young protagonists of Makhmalbaf’s first feature were really kept captive by their father, and their journey to rehabilitation in the outside world is a genuine journey that they are undertaking. Similarly in Zhao’s The Rider, Zhao follows Brady after a severe head injury sustained from riding the rodeo and films the actuality of his recovery.

Documentary or Fiction?

There is an increasingly thin line between documentary and drama – recently there’s been an influx (Kate Plays Christine etcetc), and Zhao’s film adds to this conversation. Zhao and Brady had formed a friendship prior to his accident, and Zhao had wanted to make a film about Brady’s intimate relationships with the horses he trains – after seeing this connection on a big screen, you can understand why. It wasn’t until after Brady’s accident that Zhao realised the film she wanted to make. It’s almost impossible to ascertain what is scripted or rehearsed in the film, but all of the main characters (particularly Brady) have an authenticity that feels like it can only come from genuine emotion and behaviour.

There is an innate desire for us to know what is ‘real’ and what is fiction – Mia Bays of Bird’s Eye View explained that Zhao hadn’t scripted most of the film and simply let these situations play out in front of the camera. Yet Brady and his family have different surnames to their characters, the camera-work is stylised and not reminiscent of traditional documentaries. The nature of putting a camera in front of group of people automatically changes the authenticity and so, by the very definition of filming, no ‘documentaries’ are ever going to be ‘real’. There are degrees of ‘realness’, and there is what the filmmakers chooses to show the audience. Zhao has done just this within The Rider. She chooses to show, very specifically, parts of Brady’s life post accident which make the narrative more interesting. This doesn’t make The Rider any less ‘real’, it means that Zhao is curating the image we see before us. And the image is phenomenal.

“Man-up” – Masculinity in The Rider

Toxic masculinity is a prevalent theme throughout the film, hiding around each and every corner in Brady’s home, at work and particularly at the rodeo. The phrase ‘man up’ (partner up) are used continuously throughout the film – often by Brady’s father or brothers and directed at Brady. The rodeo is a sign of ultimate masculinity and when Brady sustains his injury, he is told that his life will be in danger if he rides again. He attempts several times to ride, but this results in Brady becoming physically sick and developing a clenching reflex in his hand.

The only time that Brady is outwardly emotional is when he is with Apollo or his friend Lane, an ex bull rider who is now paralysed and suffering severe brain damage. It’s heavily implied that these injuries were sustained whilst bull riding, but this is never made explicit. In Lane, Brady can see a mirror image of what is life was and what his life could be if he continues down a path of self destruction, both at the same time.

With both Lane and Apollo, Brady is free to express a side of himself which doesn’t have to be strong, unfeeling or brave. Perhaps it is because these conversations are (in a technical sense) one sided. Lane and Brady communicate but in a limited way – Brady takes the lead in the majority of their exchanges. With Apollo, there is a clear connection but again, Brady is (literally)steering the dialogue.

In both instances, the non-verbal communications are integral to Brady being able to be vulnerable and feel his pain and anxiety about never riding again. During the Q&A I attended, the film was acutely praised by audience and panel alike for it’s depiction of disabled people, the non-verbal communication being a huge part of this. His character has an actual personality and is tangible, unlike many depictions of disable characters who generally treated akin to furniture.

For Brady, his current situation actually goes beyond the expectations of masculinity. Brady’s entire life has orbited around the rodeo and horses. During the Q&A, there was talk that Brady had been sat on a horse at just 15 days old. It’s always been his dream to ride the rodeo, and for a while he was living his dream. Now, if he tries to live it – he will almost certainly damage himself further, and possibly even die. In addition to this, it becomes clear during the film that Brady’s rodeo winnings (and money he made from breaking in horses) are integral to the families upkeep. His father has a gambling problem and seems incapable of caring for his younger sister alone. Letting go of the rodeo also means letting go of financial stability, which in turn is another marker of being a man – the ability to provide for one’s family.

I went into The Rider knowing nothing about the film or it’s narrative. I naively expected a typical Western, with overblown cowboy stereotypes, lassoing and chaps. What I found instead was a near perfect film, one which gently explores the idea of identity – particularly what it means to be a man in a particular context – but also one which explores what it means to be human and to have dreams. The Rider is as majestic as the horses on-screen, and as authentic as the humans it portrays.

The Rider is out in UK cinemas now, and to find out more about Birds Eye View, click here.

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