In accordance with its stated mission of honoring the grandeur and the glory of the American West – and every one of its myriad front lines – the James Museum of Western and Wildlife Art is screening one of the most acclaimed independent films of the last few years.
The Rider, onscreen tonight (Tuesday, Dec. 3) at 6 p.m., is a 2018 rodeo drama – what they used to call an “oater” – shot on location on the dusty Dakota plains.
But it’s a different kind of Western. The story’s about a 20-year-old Lakota Sioux named Brady Blackburn, who all but lives in the saddle, and competes professionally to help put food on the family table. When he suffers a solid stomping from an angry horse, the resulting brain injury is enough for his doctors to warn Brady that one more ride might very well kill him. He’s got a steel plate in his head to remind him.
Writing for rogerebert.com, Godfrey Cheshire called The Rider “the best American movie this critic has seen in the past year.” He praised its “sense of light and landscape and mood, simultaneously give it the mesmerizing force of the most confident cinematic poetry.”
Critics across the country expressed similar views. Guy Lodge of Variety had praise for the film’s star Brady Landreau, calling the actor “quite a find: a natural, laconic brooder, with the steady stance and gaze of a scragglier Heath Ledger.”
Here’s the real kicker: Brady Landreau and Brady Blackburn are the same person; The Rider mirrors real-life events, even though it’s not a documentary. His family and friends appear as his family and friends, re-enacting their own experiences according to the script. None of them are actors in the traditional sense.
Confusing? Well, yes and no. Writer/director Chloé Zhao used a similar template for her 2015 debut, Songs My Brother Taught Me – that, too, was a slightly fictionalized re-working of a true story, with the actual Lakota Sioux “playing” themselves onscreen.
“If I was going to tell them I was making a documentary, I think it might have been a little bit harder to get people onboard,” the Chinese-born Zhao told Rolling Stone. “There’s a healing process in art, to ask these young people to play out some of their intimate personal struggles … sometimes [it’s] even more true than if you just point and shoot.”
Brady Jandreau/Blackburn was riding full-sized horses by his third birthday; as teens, he and his best pal Lane Scott were horse-whispering, bronc-busting circuit superstars.
But a car crash for Lane, and Brady’s skull-crushing encounter with a stallion, left them both with uncertain futures: If they could no longer ride and rope, what did life have for them, black, white or a nebulous grey area?
That’s a big part of the question posed by The Rider, in which Lane Scott plays a character named Lane Scott, permanently disabled and sidelined in a care facility.
It’s a life bordered, on all sides, by risks.
“You could be heading home with a gold buckle and a pile of money – or you could be going home with a broken leg,” Landreau said. “I would truly risk my life to keep doing what I love.”
Tickets and info here.