Why Did I Watch It? Catching up on Chloe Zhao’s filmography before the release of her newie ‘Nomadland’.
On the vast plains of South Carolina, Brady faces a young life crisis. Born with a natural affinity for horses, gifted at riding and training, he has become drawn to the thrills of the rodeo. Then a serious head injury derails his career. The doctors tell him he cannot ride again, which forces him to examine his life. With that removed, what is left?
Director Chloe Zhao has lead a nomadic life. Originally from Northern China, with Mongolian heritage, she studied in both London and New York. After graduation, on a whim, she caught a plane to South Dakota and fell in love. The size and grandeur of the landscape, and down to earth people, caught her imagination; she began planning a nature documentary, that has now morphed into a loose trilogy of fact based dramas. ‘It’s my cinematic universe!’ she said, in an interview. The second of these, following ‘Songs My Brother Taught Me’, is ‘The Rider’.
The film’s method is unusual. Zhao has found a real life South Dakota family, none of them with any acting experience, and cast them as fictionalised versions of themselves. Likeable Brady really does have a way with horses, you see him break a wild buck in real time, and the horrifying gun stapled gash on his head is real as well. He is living this life, and facing these choices. Joining Brady, playing his onscreen relatives, are his real life father and sister. And his brother, who suffered brain trauma in an actual car accident, and is now confined to a wheelchair and care facility.
In ‘Rolling Stone’, Zhao described the reason she did not make a straight up documentary, ‘the locals were more honest when they could pretend their facts were fiction.’ This unusual approach unlocks the performances and gives the film a distinctive flavour. Brady especially, is something to watch. You can see the emotions rippling across his face as he grapples with the direction of his life, while at all times trying to maintain the stoic demeanour expected of a cowboy. Would a professional have been able to reach the same place? Probably, but this feels special. Zhao’s wanderlust must have made her feel alien at times, and this is perhaps why she is drawn to this character; his inability to ride anymore makes him an outsider in his own community.
Equally apparent, why Zhao was drawn to this country. Like the best westerns, the location is ravishingly beautiful, and the film can backdrop the characters with any number of stunning vistas. It makes especially good use of the famous ‘magic hour’, the light just before dusk; one shot, capturing Brady on the back of a pickup, his face bathed in violet light, has become something of a recent classic. Another stunner: when Brady takes a particularity difficult colt out for a ‘cruise’, his first ride since his injury, and the simple joy on his face is magnified by the immensity of the landscape. Film makers have always been drawn to stories about people dwarfed by nature, and they remain compelling.
The first half of the film is extraordinary, although the verite style, doco-drama approach doesn’t always pay off. It does meander a little in the second half, and the ending fails to coalesce everything you have seen into a fully satisfying whole. After Brady has tried to return to riding, and even rodeo, and been slammed with seizures and a return to hospital, it seems clear that he will need to find something else. It doesn’t have to be working at the local supermarket, but it does need to be something.
In the final scenes, his fans urge him back to his rodeo career, and his stricken brother tells him not to ‘give up on his dreams’. And I was not sure what to make of this; does it mean, different dreams? Or is it just a final statement on the blindsiding nature of this culture, where no other lifestyle is viewed as possible? In real life, Brady gave up rodeo and started a successful horse breeding business, so maybe the former. Although, it could probably be both.
So, a few minor misgivings, but the best moments in this are very special. A director of unique talent, capturing an interesting young man and a remarkable environment.