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.

Broadchurch Series 3: A Lesson in Rape Culture

One of my colleagues was recently discussing Series 3 of Broadchurch, and they mentioned that they disliked the way that each suspect turned out to be a red herring. It’s true that, since it’s creation, Broadchurch has been masterful at leading us down the garden path only to find the end has been walled up and paved over. Series 3, which focuses on the rape of a local woman rather than a murder investigation like previous series, is a bit different however. These ‘red herrings’ are not simply misleading subplots, but are part of a much bigger comment on the sexism and rape culture which prevails within our society.

To recap – DI Alec Hardy (David Tennant) and DS Ellie Miller (Olivia Coleman) head up pretty much most of the police force in the small fictional beachside town of Broadchurch. In series 1, the two investigate the murder of Danny Latimer, a young boy known to many people in the town. A roller-coaster of accusations, motivations and suspicions, series 1 leads us to all manner of dark places. In a devastating turn of events, it is revealed that Ellie Miller’s husband Joe (Matthew Gravelle) was embarking on an wildly inappropriate relationship with Danny, which resulted in Danny’s murder. Series 2 focused primarily on the trial of Joe Miller, interspersed with some backstory on Hardy’s life. Series 3 took a new approach and opened with a new case for Miller and Hardy to solve.

Miller and Hardy meet Trish, late at night, on the steps of the police station. She’s visibly shaken. She explains to them that she has been raped.

Trish is taken into the station, and the three of them go over the events of the night. It becomes clear that the attack happened two days previously, and not the same night as was assumed. Hardy becomes agitated, frustrated that they have now lost two days in their investigation. Trish is clearly still in shock, but she asks Hardy and Miller, ‘Do you believe me?’.

Trish starts out as the ‘perfect’ victim. We assume she has come straight from the attack, that it happened only hours ago. There is no mention of alcohol, or sexual history to begin with. Trish is in shock and we (like Hardy and Miller) feel for her. Over the course of the series, Trish’s ‘perfect’ victim facade falls away. She had been at a party, she had been drinking…she’d had sex the morning of the attack, with her best friend’s husband.

Now, I don’t have to link you to the innumerable articles (mostly because that would mean linking to the Daily Mail/The Sun) which paint rape victims as responsible for their own attacks. I don’t need to tell you how unlikely it is that a rapist will be prosecuted if the victim was wearing a short skirt, drinking or has any sort of sexual history. It is actually very unlikely, regardless of the above, that the defendant will be convicted anyway.  The justice system wants victims to be ‘perfect’ to even have chance at conviction. There have been countless discussions by lawmakers and politicians discussing what counts as a ‘real’ rape, and what is just ‘bad manners’. 

It could have been easy to fixate on Trish as the imperfect victim and fall prey to the ‘what was she wearing’ rhetoric,but Broadchurch is far cleverer than that. Hardy and Miller never falter in their belief of Trish, and neither do we. The crime is a fact and is not up for debate. What is up for debate is who did it.

There were roughly 56 men at the party, all of whom are now suspects as far as Hardy and Miller are considered. These include Trish’s boss, ex-husband, lover, friends and various associates. Hardy demands all of these men are investigated and DNA evidence taken from them – with all of their whereabouts and motivations listed. It turns out that the men of Broadchurch are all hiding something.

Ed, Trish’s boss, has been stalking her (under the guise of wanting to protect her) and reveals he has been obsessively in love with her for many years. Whilst he see’s his behaviour as caring, we can see the threatening nature of his obsession and his history of domestic violence doesn’t help. The local taxi driver/serial cheater Clive Lucas, who went on a date with Trish, has her photo on a keyring in his garage. Jim, Trish’s one time lover, comes across as aggressive and threatening – claiming that if he had wanted to have sex with Trish, he could have. He wouldn’t need to rape her. Ian, Trish’s estranged husband, previously installed spyware onto her laptop in order to watch her if and when he desired. The spyware in question, was put there by Leo Humphries, a student of Ians. Leo is also revealed to be the perpetrator behind the attack but not quite in the way we expect.

Additionally, Leo had also been supplying pornography to two young boys in the town – Michael and Tom (Ellie Miller’s son). Miller is furious on discovering the graphic pornography on Tom’s phone, and this is prevalent sub-plot throughout the series. The young boys seem to be obsessed by it. Hardy’s daughter Daisy is also targeted by the boys, who steal her phone and share private photos of her around the school.

Perhaps each incident alone would go unnoticed. Perhaps we could (and we do) pass them off as ‘boys will be boys’ or ‘it’s just a bit of fun’. They may be tiny micro-aggressions individually, but once added up (and on a daily basis) they start to paint a very disturbing picture of the kind of culture we are living in. Specifically, a culture of disrespect and abuse of women. A culture where rape is just something that happens. Broadchurch has done a phenomenal job of outlining where these attitudes begin, and how quickly they become ingrained. The sexism which is so prevalent within our society often feels like the norm, because it happens every day.

It begins with degrading pornography (porn itself is a complex issue for another post), leaked private photos, or watching a parent behaving in a sexist or abusive manner.  It teaches young people that women’s bodies are there to be commodified, to be objectified. To be taken if you want them.

Broadchurch also makes a point of exploring how men expect other men to stick with them on issues of sexism. Whilst interviewing potential suspects, namely Jim, Hardy seems revolted by the things he says. Jim expresses that Hardy would have done the same thing in his situation (in reference to having sex with a young waitress at his wife’s birthday party). Hardy, in his role as a DI but also as another man, rebukes this statement. Unlike the other men in the series, who all cover for each other’s secrets and indiscretions in some way, Hardy makes it clear he doesn’t condone these actions. It is telling, however, that he seems to understand the horror of Jim’s words through having a daughter. It is not through personal empathy, Hardy perceives these words through the eyes of his daughter, a young girl who he is has some sort of ownership of. It is not at dissimilar to the ‘what if it was your daughter’ adverts which sprung up a few years ago. 

It serves as a reminder that, even though Hardy is a ‘decent man’ in comparison to the potential attackers, he is not above the endemic sexism within society and that even he can’t break away fully from the idea of ownership over the women in his life.

The ending of the series has caused controversy, which is pretty justified. In the final episode we learn the identity of the rapist, and it’s more complex than we ever imagined. Leo had essentially groomed Michael, a young school-aged boy. Looking to Leo as a mentor, Michael had his first taste of alcohol, his first sexually experience and his first ideas of ‘freedom’ through Leo. The attack on Trish was instigated by Leo, claiming that it was a sort of gift for Michael.

There is a certain expectation that we should sympathise with Michael. He has been subjected to the most toxic of masculine expectations and stereotypes, and his perspectives on women are formed by the things which Leo has said and done. Leo treats women as objects, mostly for fucking. At one point, he offers his girlfriend to Michael, telling him ‘she does what I tell her to’. He’s a terrifying character. Michael, on the other hand, seems to be given some slack. He was coerced into raping Trish and he understood (on some level) what Leo was doing was wrong. Is this a reminder that men who grow up within a patriarchal society are also deeply harmed by the values that men like Leo hold? That is to say, the idea of ‘being a man’ or ‘grow some balls’, or any of the other delightful sayings completely negate men as emotional beings too.

On the other hand, it seems like a certain cop out. Broadchurch doesn’t ‘blame’ Michael, but appears to blame the culture he has bought up into. Whilst this is certainly a huge factor, the rape has a perpetrator and that perpetrator is Michael. However coerced (or forced even) he felt, he could have walked away. Perhaps it is a sign that toxic masculinity is so ingrained within our society that Michael felt he had no choice but to rape Trish – lest he feel the wrath of Leo himself.

Perhaps the biggest failure in the ending is Hardy’s comment to Miller that Leo is ‘not what men are, he is an aberration’. Calling Leo abnormal ensures that we don’t investigate the toxic culture which has created him. He is not an aberration, he is the product of sexism and rape culture – and Hardy denying it feels like Broadchurch came so close to a real breakthrough, yet missed the point by miles.

Finally, I think it’s also important to mention how Broadchurch depicted Trish and the attack. Unlike most TV shows depicting rape (yes Game of Thrones I am looking at you), we never see the attack. Trish is a three dimensional character, whose story we follow from beginning to end. We see how hard it is for her to come to terms with what happened to her. We see Beth (Jodie Whittaker) working with her and other victims to try and get justice for them. There is a terrible onus on the victims (including Trish) to put themselves in the firing line in court, to prevent their rapist from attacking again. We see Trish work through the feelings of guilt, of responsibility. She is never just a body. Although it sounds like a very small thing, it’s something that we don’t see often.

Batman’s Latest Villain is Toxic Masculinity, and Everything is Truly Awesome

Look, I know what you’re thinking. You’ve read the title and it seems like I am about to launch into a fully fledged discussion of how and why The Lego Movie Batman Movie distances itself from hegemonic gender stereotypes and you are worried because, let’s face it, it’s a kids movie. Can’t we just let it be? Must we over-analyse everything, even animated children’s movies made from Lego?

The answer is no we can’t let it go, and yes we must analyse everything. Also, I 100% disagree that The Lego Batman Movie is for children, or even a “children’s” film (whatever that means anyway) and my evidence for this is as follows. When I watched the film, none of the children in the cinema laughed at any of the jokes. They didn’t even bat an eyelid throughout the ‘history of Batman’ montage. Myself, and the three other adults I went with, couldn’t catch breath for laughing so hard for the entirety of the film, so tell me – who really got the most out of their overpriced cinema ticket here? (probably the children as they almost certainly didn’t pay for themselves but whatever… you get the point).

Batman (the Lego version) first appeared in 2014’s The Lego Movie as a side character. Arrogant, self-assured and immature, Batman (voiced by the superb Will Arnett) was such a likable character even in such a small role that a spin off was pretty inevitable. Would it work though? The Lego Movie was unique, quirky and took beloved character Lego sets and turned them into wonderful onscreen characters. Could it be done again, or would The Lego Batman Movie simply turn into another Batman parody?

The tldr answer is yes. It could, and it has been. The Lego Batman Movie lives up to the hype of The Lego Movie, and in places surpasses it. It’s funny, it’s imaginative, it’s so full of gags that you probably miss at least 30% of them on a first watch. Kermode, in his review of it, talks about wanting to just look at stills of each frame, just so you can really take in how much work has gone into the film and appreciate all the visual gags. It’s true that, especially in the first half, the jokes come thick and fast. Like tiny children after ingesting obscene amounts of sugar, Lego Batman is high paced, hyperactive and pretty much unstoppable to begin with. And, like all kids on a sugar high, it begins to wind down through the second half. It still has crazy amounts of gags, but the film takes on a more serious note and begins to hone in on its mantra – you can’t do everything by yourself. Also ‘no man is an island’, ‘friends are really important’ and ‘if you push everyone away from you constantly and act like you’re a super macho man with no weaknesses, you are going to be very, very lonely’.

This, in essence, is why Lego Batman is not only a hilariously funny film about tiny Lego characters. Lego Batman, in just under two hours, managed to sum up all of the reasons why the traditional Batman is a terrible hero and an even worse role model. It visually explained just how much Batman represents aggressive and toxic masculinity and how those things are really, really unhealthy. It did all of these things, whilst also taking the piss out of Robin’s ‘no pants’ era – which was bloody brilliant.

In the initial opening sequence, Batman’s weakness is pointed out to us by the Joker. It’s not even that Batman doesn’t have any friends or family, it’s that he is so isolated that he can’t even call the Joker his ‘greatest enemy’. He doesn’t have a greatest anything. He lives alone, he eats lobster thermidor alone, he laughs at Jerry McGuire alone and he saves Gotham over and over again, alone. He is so reluctant to let anyone into his life, that he refuses to admit that him and Joker have a special relationship – that would be too much like letting someone in.

Batman also believes that he is the only person who can save Gotham. This angle is played countless times throughout every incarnation of Batman, especially the Chris Nolan films and Batman v Superman (still very annoyed I actually sat through that steaming pile of garbage)… Batman believes himself to be the only person worthy of saving the city, and as such he never works within the law and cooperates with law enforcement in a very minimal way (occasionally talking with Commissioner Gordon). Barbara Gordon (voiced by Rosario Dawson) drives this point home when she pulls Batman up on his lack of accountability when crime fighting, and his inability to work with law enforcement or even just inside of the law. Gordon lays out some ideas about Batman assisting the Gotham PD to catch vigilantes, which Batman meets with utter disdain. He doesn’t need anyone’s help! In fact, he doesn’t need anyone at all…

Cue Richard (“my friends call me Dick”) Grayson (Michael Cera). A poor orphan boy who idolises Batman and, through Batman’s inability to listen to anyone for more than a minute, ends up accidentally being adopted by him. Batman’s fear of commitment is realised through Dick Grayson (okay, but let’s just call him Robin) because he suddenly has a responsibility to someone else. Batman realises, through a series of events, that he may actually need a bit of help to save the city. He also realises that he is desperately lonely and is very much still grieving the loss of his family.

Batman starts their relationship by exploiting Robin’s small stature and gymnastic talents by using him to steal the Phantom Zone Projector. After Robin succeeds, and shows a pretty natural talent for superhero things, Batman actually feels a sense of pride in him – a feeling he clearly hasn’t felt in a long time (if ever). So begins Batman’s internal struggle to accept another human being into his life, whilst also retain his stoic, unemotional and traditionally masculine facade.

Lego Batman manages to hit notes of loneliness and isolation in Batman’s character that the Chris Nolan films never seemed to ever come close to. It shows Batman as a scared little boy, someone who is struggling with genuine human connections in favour of ‘being a hero’ every time.  Batman performs a masculinity so destructive, that he cannot let anyone into his life. He refuses to give in to his emotions (store those away whilst you’re fighting crime), and instructs Robin to do the same. When Batman accepts teamwork, love and respect into his life, he comes happy and fulfilled. Even more importantly, perhaps, this ‘family’ is instigated by the arrival of a surrogate son. Batman is learning how to be a single father. Instead of a love interest forcing a change in him (as per 99% of superhero narratives), here Batman is held accountable by another time of love.

It also retained all the joy and ‘wackiness’ of the older Tim Burton franchise, the comics and even the 1960s series. It’s beautifully animated, brightly coloured and every other line of dialogue is a zany reference. It’s the Batman parody to end all Batman parodies, but it also works as its own funny and sweet story. The narrative is simple enough, but Lego Batman feels full because of the charm of its characters and the commitment by the filmmakers to properly go in for criticism of Batman as a dark vigilante superhero.

The Lego Batman Movie manages to throw a huge curve ball at the Batman franchise, and is one of the most effective criticisms of toxic masculinity that I’ve seen recently – especially in a ‘family’ film. It’s funny, it’s cute and it hammers home a much needed message that teamwork, respect and communication are so so important. Not to mention, it asks the all important question – if you’re going to call Barbara Gordon Batgirl, does that make Batman, Batboy? Just a thought…