The trailer for The Searchers, John Ford's 1956 epic Western starring John Wayne, describes its protagonist as follows: "It's John Wayne as Ethan Edwards, who had a rare kind of courage. The courage that simply keeps on and on, far beyond all reasonable endurance, never thinking of himself as martyred, never thinking of himself as brave. Here is the story of a man, hard and relentless."
Those words basically sum up every role Wayne played over his five decades in Hollywood, and as a result, cemented his take on one of America's most enduring and masculine symbols: the cowboy.
But what happens when that cowboy can no longer just grit his teeth and be a man? Who is he then?
That's the very question in The Rider, Chloe Zhao's gorgeous docudrama about a young rodeo champion Brady Blackburn (Brady Jandreau) who suffers a traumatic head injury that leaves him unable to ride. The film explores the aftermath of the incident, as Brady seeks to forge an identity apart from the one he's spent his entire life pursuing.
It's a premise that would be fascinating on its own, made all the more so because it's all rooted in truth. None of the main cast have ever acted professionally before, with Jandreau, his father Wayne (Tim Jandreau), and sister Lily (Lily Jandreau), who has autism, all playing exaggerated version of themselves in a story based on real events.
Zhao, who was born in China but studied film in the United States via London, met Jandreau while filming her first film, Songs My Brothers Taught Me, in the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. "I've been to many rodeos," she said in an interview with Refinery29 prior to the film's April 13 US release (UK release September 21). "I've seen a lot of young cowboys. There's something about their lifestyle and who they are that interested me. The sport that they're participating in is so close to their way of life. So, I can really talk about a place by telling their story. I just was hanging out on a ranch, and I met Brady, and I thought I discovered a young Heath Ledger or something."
Zhao was pondering how to build a story around Jandreau when reality did it for her. In 2016, Jandreau was thrown from his horse during a rodeo. His skull was crushed, and the doctors warned him that getting back on a horse could be fatal. Zhao's film chronicles Brady's recovery and his deep sense of loss as he realises he needs to reexamine what it means to be a man now that he can no longer walk in John Wayne's boots.
It's a delicate portrayal that feels entirely new: the female gaze applied to a symbol of toxic masculinity. Because while there have been female-driven westerns (Godless), some even directed by women (Natalie Portman's Jane Got A Gun, Courtney Hoffman's Good Time Girls, and Susanna White's Woman Walks Ahead, which will premiere at Tribeca later this month), it's still rare for a female filmmaker to take on the traditional male cowboy narrative.
The director stresses that she had no desire to make a grand statement when she first embarked on the project. "It was just a human connection," she said. Still, she does think that her being a woman impacted the final product.
"The female gaze is the individual gaze of each female filmmaker," Zhao explained. "I think you have to be very specific to be universal, and that's why it's very important to zoom in on your own personal experience and your own personal gaze."
That gaze is perhaps most evident in the way that the film handles its female characters, none of which are typecast in the role of Brady's love interest, or as a sexy rodeo side-attraction in Daisy Duke shorts. In fact, aside from Lily, the one constant female presence in Brady's life, there are very few women in the film, reinforcing the feeling of this very male world that Brady feels he no longer fully belongs to.
"This is really a love story between a cowboy and his horse," Zhao said. "When you generalise a gender, when you make films through that kind of gender landscape, it's not going to be an authentic portrayal. "
That reluctance to play to type is perhaps why the film has been so-well received since it premiered at Cannes in 2017 (the same year Jessica Chastain criticised the lack of female storytellers), also garnering four nominations at the Independent Spirit Awards. But in a way, Zhao's journey to make this film as a woman director struggling to tell a different type of story than what's usually prescribed mirrors Brady's arc.
"There is a pressure for female filmmakers — the dominant machine is male, and the kinds of things they're looking for, the kind of cinema that's been there, is male," she said. "Just having enough women be successful doesn't necessarily mean we're changing how men and women are portrayed in movies. If you just enter a house that's already built, you're going to follow its rules. We have to build other houses, and climb into each other's windows."
If The Rider is any indication, Zhao has a promising career in construction ahead of her.
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