Chloé Zhao’s The Rider is one of the best films of 2018 so far, and it might be my favorite of the 2018 films I’ve seen. A breathtakingly beautiful Heartland tale of joy, pain and loss in the Native American cowboy world of the Dakotas, Zhao’s fact-inspired film stars nonprofessional actors playing characters who are basically versions of themselves.
Brady Jandreau is a young Lakota Sioux rodeo star who met Zhao while she was filming at a South Dakota ranch where he worked. Zhao wanted her next film to be about Jandreau’s world and way of life.
While she was searching for a way into the story, Jandreau’s career came to an abrupt end when a bronco threw him and then stomped on his head, shattering his skull.
One of Jandreau’s best friends, a former bull rider named Lane Scott, had been paralyzed in an accident far more devastating than Jandreau’s. So Zhao’s film became a story of disability and brokenness, but also of life going on. Jandreau’s sister Lilly is autistic, and she and their father, Tim, are a screen family both like and not like their real selves. (Among the fictional elements: Jandreau’s mother is alive, but in the film his character’s mother is dead.)
I recently spoke with Jandreau by phone about the film, his heritage as a Native American cowboy, his love of horses and his Christian faith, which clearly comes across in The Rider.
What I saw in this film, and what a lot of people are seeing, is a world and a way of life — your world and your way of life — that many people outside that world didn’t even know exists.
I can understand Chloé Zhao wanting to bring this world to the screen. I was wondering if you feel “seen” as a result of working on the film — that there’s a new awareness of your world now.
Yeah, maybe; I hope so. I mean, we’re just out there doing our thing — living our life, just like anybody else. Everybody’s life is different. We like to ride horses out here. (Chuckles.)
Many people have a stereotyped idea from old Hollywood movies about cowboys and Native Americans, as if they’re almost opposite categories, you know, “cowboys and Indians.”
Yeah. I’m a cowboy and an Indian.
How is being a Native American cowboy different from being some other kind of cowboy?
You have different cultural leaders, different traditions. There are all kinds of cowboy traditions that I carry on — not only the way you dress; the way you present yourself — and also Native American traditions, with different ceremonies, things like that.
I’m also a Christian, you know.
I was just going to ask you about that, as well. One of the recurring themes in the film is your sense, or your character’s sense, of being born to ride and to work with horses, and that being your God-given purpose in life. Is that your own conviction?
Yep, exactly. Since the shoot, I’ve actually started a breeding program called Jandreau Performance Horses. We’re working on a website. We have some upcoming fillies; we should have about 30 mares in a couple of years. We’re raising American quarter horses to do everything in rodeo events, working on a ranch.
Was your faith as a Christian important to you in how you faced your accident and the aftermath and how you dealt with that?
Yeah, definitely. God saved my life. I definitely would not be here if it weren’t for a lot of prayer — all those prayers. This is something that I know; it’s not something I believe. It’s something that is.
Did you struggle at all with your feeling called by God to work with horses when you were going through the period where you couldn’t ride?
No. I struggled with not being able to ride. That was more of an injury than the actual physical one, pain-wise. I was so happy to be riding again.
Has Christianity been the faith of your family? Do you know going back how far?
Yeah, quite aways. I was baptized Catholic, but I don’t — I’m just a Christian. Anybody that has any room to judge any other Christian isn’t very Christian to begin with. (Chuckles.)
That’s interesting. I didn’t know that you were baptized Catholic. Was your mother Catholic?
No, my mom was actually Lutheran. My dad was Catholic.
Both of my parents go to church from time to time and read the Bible from time to time. They both believe in the Lord God, our God, and his one and only Son, who died to save us from our sins, Jesus Christ.
But they also understand other things, as well: nature, you know.
Nature? Do you feel that living where you do, and the way that do, surrounded by all that natural beauty and working with animals like horses, helps you to be closer to God?
Definitely, and you can feel it if you come out here. I’ve been in a lot of cities and places like that, all over, and they don’t feel like the hills out here. Does that make sense? I think you’re much closer to God than when I was in New York or Paris — even though Paris is so beautiful.
So your film is being seen in places like New York and Paris that are very different from where you live, and in many cases by people for whom religion is a much more distant reality. Do you think your film has something to say to these audiences about God, about faith and about prayer?
Chloé, the writer and director, is actually a Buddhist. I don’t think she made any effort to do that. It’s just something that was factual in the story that was also included, like anything else in the movie that’s part of my real life. It’s definitely a part of our culture and our beliefs and what we feel is real.
One thing that links cowboy culture and Native American culture going back at least to the 18th century is horses. In the movie your character links his bond with horses to his cowboy identity. Is your bond with horses in any way connected to your Native American heritage?
I would say 100%. Sioux was always a horse culture, especially the Lakota Sioux. My mom is from Pine Ridge Indian Reservation; my dad is from a Sioux Indian reservation. Both tribes are Lakota.
The Lakota Sioux were basically the most dominant tribe in the region, just because of their horsemanship abilities. They hunted better; they gathered better; they warred better; they raided better; they could travel better. It just made everything better for the Lakota people.
The Lakota has always been a horse culture, since the [first Colonial Spanish horse] set foot on Central American soil, I suppose, and turned into the mustang.
There’s a lot of brokenness in the film — not just your injury and your friend Lane’s injury, but also the horse, Apollo, and your sister — and even your father, in a way, and your relationship with your father, at least as it’s seen in the movie.
Have your experiences given you anything that you would say to someone who has had some kind of shattering experience in their life?
Be happy it’s not worse, I guess. Take everything in stride. Have a positive attitude. I mean, I coulda moped and been, you know, completely negative after my head injury, and I would probably not be the person I am today or had near as many opportunities or anything like that.
Your attitude is a direct reflection of your happiness, basically. You’re never gonna get anywhere in life being negative and focusing on the things that you don’t appreciate about it.
Is there a moment in the film you’re particularly proud of?
Yeah, there’s many. If I was to choose one, it’d probably be when I got to stroke the colt that had never been touched, for the first time, on camera, basically in real time. That was pretty cool, because that’s something I do on a daily basis. If that didn’t make it in, it would have been kind of sad.