–By Sam Hendrian–
“If any animal around here got hurt like I did, they’d have to be put down.” These haunting words said by ex-rodeo rider Brady Blackburn to his autistic sister Lilly succinctly summarize both the central conflict and the prevalent message of human dignity in Chloe Zhao’s fact-inspired The Rider. Tragic yet subtly uplifting, it is powered by a thematically-rich screenplay and superb performances from non-actors playing versions of themselves. Though universally acclaimed by critics, even appearing as #1 on several 2018 top-ten lists (including mine), it has unfortunately been overlooked by the Academy Awards and many commercial audiences.
The whole meaning and purpose of South Dakotan cowboy Brady Blackburn’s life centers on rodeo riding. Well, so he thinks for a majority of the film. He says at one point, “I believe God gives each of us a purpose… To the horse, it’s to run across the prairie. For a cowboy, it’s to ride.” A rodeo accident has damaged Brady’s brain, causing the risk of seizures and making it highly unlikely that he will ever be able to safely ride horses again. This is an emotionally-crushing blow, and while he strives to face it like a man and move on, he cannot easily escape his lifelong raison de vivre.
Brady’s sister Lilly is autistic and as sweet as any person could be. She is his #1 confidante and voice of wisdom, a beacon of hope and love when he fears that he has nothing left to live for. When he stubbornly persists on (literally) getting back on the horse and training for rodeo-riding again, she earnestly pleads with him, “I know it’s hard, but can’t you please [be] more careful?” Without her sisterly compassion, he would likely feel even more lost than he already does.
One of Brady’s best friends, Lane, also had an accident that was even more serious and immensely damaged his brain. Confined to a 24-hour care facility, he nevertheless maintains a beautifully positive attitude that always inspires Brady whenever he comes to visit him. The scenes of these two friends interacting with each other are quite touching, and they serve as a constant reminder both to Brady and to the audience that life is still a precious gift even when we are prevented from doing all that we dream of doing.
Brady starts working in a grocery store to help provide for his sister and widowed father, and he finds the monotonous environment there to be quite demoralizing. When a horse he has been training is injured and has to be euthanized, he quietly ponders why he as an injured human being has to keep on living. If he is no longer capable of doing that which he believes he was born to do, what is the point of pressing on? He never openly contemplates suicide, but the thought clearly haunts his eyes, and it is ultimately the love of his sister Lilly who makes him realize his transcendent value as a human being. He tells her at one point, “I’ll take care of you, Lil.” She sweetly replies, “I’ll take care of you too.”
Despite Brady’s realization that his life has value with or without the ability to ride horses, his stubbornness blinds him once more, and he recklessly decides to go back to the rodeo in the film’s climactic scene. However, as he is preparing to begin a competition, he sees his concerned father and innocent sister watching him from afar, and a powerful thought strikes him: What if I die in the process of reclaiming my dreams? Then I would no longer be able to take care of my sister, my father, and my best friend Lane. Would that really be worth it?
In just a few brief seconds, Brady finally understands that his true God-given purpose is not to ride horses. Rather, it is to love and be loved by the people with whom he has been entrusted. Leaving the competition last-minute, he goes home with his sister and father, sad but consoled that his life is beautiful even if his old dreams are crushed forever.
As countless critics have asserted, The Rider is a must-see film with one of the deepest and most richly-inspiring stories in years. It profoundly portrays the pricelessness of human dignity and the boundless beauty of life even when all is not right with the world. Finally, it shows us that while we each have a unique purpose in life, all of our purposes have one important factor in common: self-giving love.
About the Author
Sam Hendrian is a student at JPCatholic (Class of 2019) pursuing an emphasis in Directing.