“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,” Brady Blackburn (Brady Jandreau)
By Nils Skudra
This evening I just finished watching The Rider, a compelling biographical western film directed by Chloé Zhao and starring Brady Jandreau in his debut performance as a rodeo star whose life is largely inspired by real events in the actor’s own life.
I felt that this film merited a review since its approach of casting an actor and his real-life family members in a production based on their actual experiences lends a unique degree of authenticity to the narrative. In addition, while it is not an autism-themed film, The Rider includes a supporting autistic character portrayed by a real person with autism, and it conveys a powerful message about staying committed to one’s dreams and not letting one’s disability prevent them from pursuing those dreams.
he film revolves around Brady Blackburn (Brady Jandreau), a young Lakota Sioux man who has suffered a traumatic head injury as the result of an accident during a rodeo show. His head is severely scarred; his injury has been stitched together with staples; and he is left prone to seizures due to the triggers that his brain sends to his weakened right hand, so Brady is advised that he should no longer ride or compete in rodeo performances. Brady lives with his father Wayne (portrayed by Jandreau’s real-life father Tim Jandreau) and sister Lilly (played by real-life sibling Lilly Jandreau) who is on the autism spectrum.
While he has a close bond with Lilly, who is emotionally supportive, Brady has a strained relationship with his father who is extremely hypercritical and discouraging of his son’s desire to return to rodeo. Nonetheless, Brady is adamant about getting back in shape for his career, and he devotes himself to training horses and riding electric saddles as practice for his prospective return to rodeo.
Brady’s best friend is another former rodeo star named Lane Scott (appearing as himself in the film), who suffered a far more severe accident which has left him completely paralyzed and nonverbal. Brady visits him regularly in the local rehabilitation center, offering him reassurance and showing old videos of Lane’s rodeo career to cheer him up. Lane communicates by making signs with his hands, which Brady is able to interpret, and the two both share a sense of despondency and a nostalgic desire for returning to the glory days of their rodeo tours.
The film ties in themes of Native American culture and the social issues that Native Americans struggle with in modern America.
Brady and his family live in poverty on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, and his father epitomizes the challenges facing many Native American men since he spends his income on drinking and gambling casinos, paying little heed to the well-being of his children. This is particularly evident with respect to Lilly since there are no autism services in the area, and Wayne makes no effort to secure services for her in spite of the fact that she is on the lower-functioning range of the autism spectrum. In addition, all of Brady’s friends are Lakota Sioux, and they engage in drug use and frequent local bars, a widespread trend within the Native American community due to its depressed socioeconomic conditions.
Another key element of the film is Brady’s bond with horses.
When Brady rides a horse, he is truly one with the animal, which is an integral aspect of Lakota culture.
The time that Brady spends training and riding horses thus serves a profoundly spiritual and psychological, as well as practical, purpose. Therefore, when he discovers that Wayne has sold their horse Gus in order to pay rent for the trailer they live in, Brady is enraged and nearly gets into a physical confrontation with his father, who mocks him for not being able to compete in rodeo anyway. Brady subsequently finds work at a local convenience store to support his family, but he also earns some money breaking in horses, with the intention of buying another one.
Brady soon bonds with an especially aggressive and temperamental horse named Apollo, whom he seeks to break in. Over the course of his time training Apollo, he makes significant progress but then suffers a near-fatal seizure while riding the horse. The doctors therefore advise him that he must completely give up riding and rodeo since another accident could prove fatal. Following his return from the hospital, Brady discovers that Apollo has accidentally had his leg caught in barbed wire, leaving it permanently injured and thus rendering the horse unable to be ridden again. Heartbroken and unable to bring himself to put Apollo down, Brady reluctantly allows his father to carry out the task, walking away and whistling so that the horse will remain calm.
Apollo’s death leaves Brady in a state of deep depression and despondency, and he seems to contemplate suicide, practicing taking aim with his pistol in his room and closely examining the rope that he would use during rodeo performances. However, when he goes to visit Lane, his friend communicates the message “Don’t give up on your dreams,” which makes a profound impression on Brady.
In addition, during a conversation with Lilly, Brady observes,
“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.”
This statement of self-awareness, together with Lane’s encouragement, convinces Brady that riding and rodeo are what he truly lives for, and he decides to take part in an upcoming competition, telling his father, “I don’t want to end up like you.” During the film’s climactic scene, when Brady sees that his family has shown up to watch his performance, he finally realizes that they will support him in whatever endeavor he chooses, and he decides to walk away from the competition and devote himself to horse training.
The film is marked by beautiful cinematography, which includes captivating closeup shots of the horses that Brady trains, and sensitive performances.
Jandreau delivers a superb acting job in his debut role, bringing a profound authenticity to the part since it is heavily based on his own real-life experiences; he suffered an actual head injury during a rodeo performance, and the footage of this incident is featured in the film. In addition, the director adopts the unique approach of casting Jandreau’s real-life family members in the roles of Wayne and Lilly, as well as the real Lane Scott in his own role. This contributes to the authenticity of the narrative in a compelling manner that is particularly relevant for individuals with autism or disabilities in general since Jandreau’s sister is actually autistic and Lane Scott is paralyzed in real life (albeit from a car accident rather than a rodeo accident). Since autistic and disabled roles are predominantly played by neurotypical and able-bodied actors, this is a groundbreaking step in the area of representation, which can hopefully set future precedents for the casting of autistic and disabled actors.
A final note about the film’s message is that it resonates profoundly with Brady Jandreau’s own outlook on dealing with traumatic and shattering life experiences. In an interview, when asked about whether his experiences have given him any lessons that he would pass on, he stated:
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.
This profound observation speaks volumes about The Rider’s message of staying committed to one’s dreams and maintaining an optimistic view in spite of the challenges that life can present, and this message will hopefully inspire disabled viewers to move forward with their dreams and aspirations rather than be inhibited by their physical or neurological conditions.
I am an artist on the autism spectrum. I received an MA specializing in Civil War/Reconstruction history at the University of North Carolina, Greensboro, and I have been drawing hundreds of Civil War-themed pictures since the age of five and a half. I’m now working on a secondary Master’s in Library Science. As a person with Asperger’s Syndrome, I have a very focused set of interests, and the Civil War is my favorite historical event within that range of interests. It is therefore my fervent desire to become a Civil War historian and have my Civil War artwork published in an art book for children. I am also very involved in the autism community and currently serve as the President/Head Officer of Spectrum at UNCG, an organization I founded for students on the autism spectrum. The goal of the organization is to promote autism awareness and foster an inclusive community for autistic students on the UNCG campus. The group has attracted some local publicity and is steadily gaining new members, and we shall be hosting autism panels for classes on campus in the near future.