DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, editor of the website TV Worth Watching, sitting in for Terry Gross. Today's guests are the star and the writer-director of an unusual film called "The Rider," which can now be watched on different streaming TV sites. Released to theaters this year, it's about a Native American rodeo rider and horse trainer who is recovering from a devastating rodeo accident and might no longer be able to ride again. You won't know the people in the cast. They're not professional actors. They're playing slightly fictionalized versions of themselves. We're going to be joined by the film's star Brady Jandreau who was badly injured in a rodeo accident and the film's writer-director Chloe Zhao. Zhao is a Chinese-born, U.S.-based filmmaker who shot this film and her 2015 film "Songs My Brothers Taught Me" on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota. Before we meet them, let's hear what film critic Justin Chang thought of the film.
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JUSTIN CHANG, BYLINE: "The Rider" is a stunningly lyrical contemporary Western, a hymn to the beauty of endless prairies, majestic sunsets and strapping young men on horseback. But the filmmaker, Chloe Zhao, doesn't drown the myth of the American cowboy in Hollywood gloss. She strips it down to its raw, aching essence. She steeps us in the rhythms of life on South Dakota's Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, where young Lakota men wear chaps and Stetsons and harbor dreams of rodeo stardom.
Zhao was directing her first feature, "Songs My Brothers Taught Me," when she met Brady Jandreau, a bronco rider of Lakota descent. Jandreau was well on his way to becoming a rodeo legend, until April 2016, when a serious riding accident left him with a near-fatal head wound. Shortly afterward, Zhao began filming him and his friends and family, piecing together a story about a cowboy's tough physical and emotional recovery. The result is a seamless, collaborative merging of narrative and documentary storytelling in which every scene, even when heightened for dramatic effect, has a bone-deep authenticity.
As the movie opens, Brady Blackburn, as he's been renamed here, has just discharged himself from the hospital and is peeling off his surgical bandages. He has a steel plate in his head and a long gash running down his scalp. He also has alarming seizures that cause his right hand to tighten up uncontrollably. But he has no intention of listening to his doctors, who have warned him against ever riding again. Later that morning, he's practicing roping a dummy bronco outside his family's trailer home when his dad, Wayne, shows up.
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TIM JANDREAU: (As Wayne Blackburn) What the hell are you doing here? You're supposed to be up in the hospital. I seen Tanner at the bar. He said you escaped, huh?
BRADY JANDREAU: (As Brady Blackburn) Told you to check me out.
T. JANDREAU: (As Wayne Blackburn) Well, the doctor said you're supposed to stay up there. Give me a hug.
B. JANDREAU: (As Brady Blackburn) Why don't you go inside and sober up?
T. JANDREAU: (As Wayne Blackburn) Sober up? Let me see you rope that. Checking yourself out of the hospital like your Uncle Roddy. (Laughter). What the hell? Can't you rope anymore?
CHANG: That's Jandreau's real-life father, Tim, and you can hear the conflicting impulses in his gruff delivery - the clumsy, boozy affection, the impulse to scold his son for not listening to orders, but also to mock him for being damaged goods. It helps that the older Jandreau has a movie star's wiley charisma, and he's passed that gift on to his son. Brady Jandreau may be playing a fictionalized version of himself, but few professionally trained actors could achieve the heartbreaking gravity that he packs into a single downward glance.
No less than his horses, he's an extraordinarily magnetic camera subject. Also playing herself is Lilly Jandreau, Brady's younger sister, who lovingly helped steer him through his recovery. She has Asperger's syndrome, and their mutual sense of protectiveness provides some of the film's warmest moments. Then there's Brady's close friend, Lane Scott, a former bull rider who's shown paralyzed and unable to speak due to a car crash in real life. Though, the movie doesn't specify, leaving us to assume another riding accident. Either way, Scott remains a spirited optimist, telling Brady in sign language to throw some dirt on his wound and not give up.
Zhao doesn't reduce her actors to their disabilities or milk their setbacks for easy emotions. Working with the cinematographer Joshua James Richards, she captures the feel of everyday life in this community with an almost unbearable poignancy. She turns a simple drama of personal struggle into a wounding portrait of masculinity in crisis. Brady tries to move on, getting a job at a supermarket, and, at one point, almost pawning his saddle. But when we see him leading a horse around its enclosure, riding it, talking to it and praying over it, we see a man doing what he was clearly born to do. How do you carry on when the only dream you've ever known has been ripped away?
Zhao captures the exhilarating sense of liberation that rodeo riders must feel, even if only for eight seconds at a time. But she also conveys how few other options there are for a community whose traditions have been codified into ritual. At times, she makes these wide open plains feel downright claustrophobic. "The Rider" may be a movie about someone literally trying to get back on that horse, but there's also a subtler metaphor at work. Throughout the movie, we see Brady repeatedly using his good hand to assist his injured one, prying open his clenched grip. It's a fitting, heartbreaking image for the pain and necessity of letting go.
BIANCULLI: Justin Chang is a film critic for The LA Times. Earlier this year, Terry Gross spoke with the star of "The Rider," Brady Jandreau, who is a Lakota Indian from the Pine Ridge Reservation where "The Rider" was filmed. She also spoke to the movie's writer-director Chloe Zhao.
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TERRY GROSS, BYLINE: Brady Jandreau, Chloe Zhao, welcome to FRESH AIR, and congratulations on this beautiful movie. Brady, I want to ask first, how are you now? Have you fully recovered from your head injury? Are there lasting effects you're still dealing with?
B. JANDREAU: You know, I mean, I struggle with a little bit of, like, short-term memory stuff. But other than that, I mean, I've pretty well recovered.
GROSS: And so you're riding?
B. JANDREAU: Not in rodeos, but I'm training wild horses again. I was a month-and-a-half after my head injury.
GROSS: Wow. What actually happened to you?
B. JANDREAU: I was participating at the PRCA rodeo in Fargo, N.D., and I was riding in the saddle bronc riding. And I was nearing the whistle and trying to stay on for the eight seconds to get a score. And I come off the side, and my foot hung in the stirrup and caused me to swing underneath the horse. And where my - and the horse stepped on my head while it was bucking and pulled me out of the stirrup, and it crushed my skull. It was a comminuted fracture, meaning shattered. And it was 3 1/4 inches in length, three-quarters of an inch wide and about an inch and a quarter deep into my brain cavity.
GROSS: Oh, my God.
B. JANDREAU: Caused a significant amount of bleeding. I actually didn't lose consciousness until I went into a seizure at the hospital, which was only, like, 11 minutes away.
GROSS: So now you have a steel plate in your head?
B. JANDREAU: I don't think it's made out of steel because it doesn't beep when I go through the monitors.
B. JANDREAU: I believe it's actually, like, titanium or something.
GROSS: I see. I see. You mentioned the whistle. I don't think most of our listeners will be familiar with the eight seconds. Can you explain...
B. JANDREAU: Yeah.
GROSS: ...The eight seconds and the whistle?
B. JANDREAU: Well, when participating in the rough stock events rodeo, either bareback riding, saddle bronc riding or bull riding, you're required to stay mounted on the animal with your free hand in the air for eight seconds from the time the horse's or bull's head breaks the plane of the chute once the door is opened, the gate. And there's a whistle blown at the eight-second mark to notify the rider that he has made a qualified ride and is free to dismount the animal.
GROSS: And then riders come up, and you can mount one of their horses to get off the bucking bronco.
B. JANDREAU: In the bareback riding and saddle bronc riding, yes. They're called the pickup men. They're in the arena to make sure that nothing goes wrong. In the bull riding, there are two or three bull fighters in the arena, and they get the bull's attention so that when the rider dismounts, the bull won't be right on top of them when they hit the ground.
GROSS: Do you have memories of the actual accident?
B. JANDREAU: I remember the horse bucking away from me. I remember the bull fighter coming up to me who was helping and telling me to stay down, they're bringing a stretcher and all that. And I was trying to get up, and they were like, no, you've got to stay down. You got a broken neck. And they started treating me for a broken neck, and I said, no, my head. It's my head. I can feel my feet. Look; I can move. They were like, don't move your legs; don't move your legs. I was like, I can move them. It's my head. And they started to kind of look at the wound on my head. I had very long hair at the time, and the step actually didn't puncture my skin very much. It was, like, a small cut. And the bleeding - about 90 percent of the bleeding, if not more, was going on inside of my brain cavity.
B. JANDREAU: And because of the small puncture, not very much of it was able to come out. My wound was listed as contaminated 'cause it had horse manure and sand and hair and other things in there. And I was conscious clear to the hospital. And when - like I said, when I got there, they started asking me questions, and I went into a full-body convulsive seizure. And they induced coma and did surgery.
GROSS: Wow. Now, you know, in the movie, your character, who's kind of you - I mean, you're playing a version of yourself - watches getting thrown and stomped on a video that was made of the event. Is that the actual video of what happened to you?
B. JANDREAU: That is 100 percent the actual video.
GROSS: What was it like for you to watch it?
B. JANDREAU: I've watched that, you know, dozens of times. To be honest, that phone is broken now. So the only time I can watch it is when I watch the movie.
B. JANDREAU: But I don't have much of a problem with that.
GROSS: With watching it?
B. JANDREAU: It kind of - honestly, I kind of like to think of it as it didn't really happen to me. It happened to Brady Blackburn (laughter).
GROSS: Oh, to your character in the movie. Yeah (laughter).
B. JANDREAU: Yeah, yeah.
GROSS: Let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guests are Brady Jandreau, who plays a slightly fictionalized version of himself in the new film "The Rider," and Chloe Zhao, the film's director. We'll talk more after we take a short break. This is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.