By Chelsea Phillips-Carr

Set in the world of modern-day cowboys, Chloé Zhao’s The Rider is an incisive critique of traditional American masculinity. The film follows rodeo rider Brady Blackburn (Brady Jandreau, who, like the other actors, is playing a version of his real self) as he struggles to recover from a head injury suffered during a competition. Despite his now-chronic health problem, Brady is pressured by his friends and family to return to riding; and, lacking any education or other skills, or even any conception of how to live apart from the life he has always known, he dives deeper into a lifestyle that may eventually kill him.

As Brady struggles with both his pain and his fear, and the uncomprehending other men in his life (including his father) alternate between misplaced encouragement and belittlement, Zhao subtly sketches out the macho codes that govern this world, from “manning up” and riding despite one’s physical suffering to hooking up with quickly discarded women. Brady’s work as a horse trainer, breaking animals into docile and cooperative submission, makes for a nicely organic metaphor: masculinity must be dominant—over women, over nature, over the body—but the exercising of that power is destructive both to others and, ultimately, to the self. It’s unfortunate that Zhao feels the need to underline things in a sequence near the end of the film where Brady must put down an injured horse he has trained, having her normally stoic character articulate his thoughts (and the film’s theme) a tad too precisely—it’s patently unnecessary when these ideas have already been communicated in a more natural and delicate way, and unworthy of the rest of Zhao’s beautiful, intelligent, and sensitive feature.