On April 1, 2016, Brady Jandreau, a 20-year-old, Lakota Sioux saddle bronc rider from the Pine Ridge Reservation, was bucked off a stallion during a rodeo. The horse stomped on his head, putting him in a coma and requiring doctors to place a steel plate in his skull. Jandreau’s doctors told him he could never ride rodeo again.
However, the accident turned out to be an opportunity in disguise for Jandreau. He was acquainted with Chloe Zhao, a filmmaker who met him while making her first film, Songs My Brothers Taught Me, on the reservation. Impressed by Jandreau’s quiet dignity and charisma, Zhao decided that someday she wanted to make a movie about him. Jandreau’s accident provided the occasion; the result is The Rider, which won major prizes at Cannes, Deauville, and other film festivals.
Jandreau’s character in The Rider is named Brady Blackburn; Jandreau estimated in an interview that Brady Blackburn is about 60 percent him. Nevertheless, Brady Blackburn’s basic life story and nearly all the performers are from Brady Jandreau’s real life. Brady Blackburn’s father Wayne and sister Lilly are played by Jandreau’s real father and sister, Tim and Lilly Jandreau. His friends Cat Clifford, Tanner Langdeau, James Calhoon and Lane Scott are played by his friends Cat Clifford, Tanner Langdeau, James Calhoon and Lane Scott. (More about Lane later.) Terri Dawn Pourier, who appears briefly as a girl sweet on Brady, was Jandreau’s fiancée when the movie was made and is now his wife.
Zhao’s story is simple, lacking the dramatic arc audiences expect in a film. It begins—and ends—with dreams of horses racing across the Great Plains. The opening dream ends with the cold reality of Brady Blackburn’s existence: waking to a bleak sunrise, stumbling to the bathroom to survey the scars on his head, including the gash on the side held together by dozens of surgical staples. (“You look like Frankenstein!” one of his buddies later exclaims in jest.)
Brady’s head injury makes it impossible for him, on pain of death, to ever get on a bucking horse again. Not only that, but his hand seizes up on him without warning, jeopardizing his future as a horse trainer. For Brady, this is unthinkable. He has never wanted anything in his life except to work with horses; he dropped out of school for precisely that reason. Working the only job he can get after his accident, as a stock boy and cashier at the local supermarket, he is stopped by local schoolchildren who idolize him and say they can’t wait to see him back in competition.
Brady’s home life isn’t much better. He is close to his sister, who has Asperger’s syndrome, but his father would rather drink and gamble than work. He gets behind on the rent on their trailer, and sells Brady’s favorite horse to pay the debt.
Brady pays regular visits to the hospital to see his friend Lane. Once a champion bull rider, Lane is speechless, trembling and wheelchair-bound, able to converse only by a sign language of his own invention. (Although The Rider implies that Lane’s injuries came from bull riding, they were actually caused by an auto accident.) But what you remember best of Lane is not his incapacity, but the ornery grin that’s always on his face, the grin of an optimistic and indomitable spirit.
In The Rider, Zhao has created something rare and remarkable. The one recent movie I can think of that comes anywhere close to it is The Cave of the Yellow Dog, Byambasuren Davaa’s 2005 film about a real nomadic family on the Mongolian steppes. (Some of that film’s best moments were unscripted: at one point the little son of the family is using their votive figurine of Buddha as a toy, only to be upbraided by his older sister: “You can’t play with God!”) But The Rider blows past The Cave of the Yellow Dog to become an authentic masterpiece. The delicacy and precision of Zhao’s writing and direction, backed by Joshua James Richards’ magnificent photography of the South Dakota Badlands, go a long way toward making the film as fine as it is. But Zhao’s real ace in the hole is her cast, whom she found at
Pine Ridge exactly as they were.
While it is difficult to say that Brady Jandreau gives a “performance” in the traditional sense, it is equally difficult to think of anybody who has done what he does here. Playing a character that is both him and not him, Jandreau gives us the plain reality of who he is. Both cowboy and Indian, his boyishly handsome face permanently scarred, he is touching and totally compelling, a man distinguished by courage, integrity, and a sincere, unaffected religious faith.
Some of the best scenes in The Rider are the ones in which Zhao simply points the camera at Jandreau in the corral, working with horses. Zhao makes it plain that Jandreau’s talents as a horse trainer are truly amazing. There is one great moment in which a horse that hasn’t been ridden before stares straight into Jandreau’s eyes, daring Jandreau to mount him. Within a minute or two, Jandreau is riding him peaceably.
Among the supporting cast, Lilly Jandreau is the standout, as someone who is utterly and ebulliently herself. There’s a delightful comic moment in which Brady answers the door with his bare chest covered with gold stars, because Lilly strewed them while he was asleep. She meant it partly as a joke, but also partly because she adores him and believes he deserves gold stars. The relationship between brother and sister is only one of the many things that make The Rider unforgettable and unique. Be assured that when we think of Western heroes, Brady Jandreau—and also Lane Scott—should be ranked among them.
From a young man who is consummately gifted with horses, we turn to one who has never been on the back of a horse, but who sees a horse as his only friend. Plenty of sentimental movies have been made on such a premise, but Andrew Haigh’s Lean on Pete is something very different from those.
Written by Haigh from a novel by Willy Vlautin, Lean on Pete is the story of Charley Thompson (Charlie Plummer), a teenage boy just moved from Spokane to Portland, where he knows no one. In the very first scene, we see Charley unpacking his sports trophies in his new bedroom, showing us that basically he’s just a normal kid. But soon we also see his truck driver father Ray (Travis Fimmel) come out of his bedroom with his pickup of the night. Ray is content to drift from town to town, chasing women and booze indiscriminately. Most of the time he leaves Charley alone at night, while also having forgotten to buy food. Charley has no one besides Ray; his mother left before he even knew who she was. His Aunt Margy (Alison Elliott) in Wyoming loves him, but she and Ray quarreled several years before, and she has stayed away since.
Ray and Charley’s new house is near a race track. One morning Charley is running through the grounds when Del (Steve Buscemi), a horse owner and trainer, calls to him. Del could use a boy to muck out the stalls and exercise the horses, and offers Charley a job. Soon Charley is spending his weekends on the road with Del and Bonnie (Chloe Sevigny), Del’s usual jockey, going to various races.
Del and Bonnie are cynics who have spent their lives at the bottom of the race-track world. “Get out of this racket, kid, before you’re too old to do anything else,” Del tells Charley at one point. Bonnie notices that Charley is becoming attached to a broken-down nag named Lean on Pete, and warns him that the horses are just rides, not pets. Soon enough they’ll be sold down south to Mexico, where slaughtering horses for dog food is legal, she says.
But Charley, who spends more time with Pete than with any other living being, begins to confide in the horse, telling him things he can’t tell anyone else because no one else will listen. Charley does not even tell Del and Bonnie when horrible tragedy strikes him. This happens to be the same time that Del decides to sell Pete.
Charley makes a drastic decision: he drives away in Del’s horse trailer-truck with Pete inside, heading for Wyoming in the hope of finding Aunt Margy. We can reasonably expect trouble to ensue, but not the sort of trouble Charley finds along the way, particularly in the film’s last third when the plot becomes an amalgam of Dickens and Nelson Algren.
Just as Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu has become the cinema’s poet of remorse, Andrew Haigh has become its poet of loneliness. Weekend was about two gay men finding unexpected but transitory connection in what was supposed to be a one-night stand; 45 Years told of a woman who discovers the man she’s spent her life with has never really loved her. Lean on Pete is the most moving of all, and the most harrowing. Charley, like countless other children, has been cast on the scrap heap out of sheer indifference. He longs for stability, but barring that just someone to talk to. In a film replete with powerful scenes, for me the most powerful was the one of Charley leading Pete through the desert, telling of the wonderful lives of his old friends in Spokane, who actually had parents who cared about them.
The cast of Lean on Pete is impeccable, but Charlie Plummer—who appears in nearly every frame of the film—is unforgettable. Plummer won the Marcello Mastroianni Award for best young actor at the Venice Film Festival, an award previously won by the likes of Jennifer Lawrence and Gael Garcia Bernal, and he eminently belongs in their company. His innocent snub-nosed face wreathed by long blond hair, Plummer makes Charley’s loneliness and despair so palpable that you want to leap onto the screen and save him yourself.
Lean on Pete can’t exactly be called a pleasant film to watch, and it’s also not perfect. It sags in the middle, especially with a sequence about two Afghanistan vets living in the desert that could easily have been excised. But for its portrayal of a boy down on his luck—and especially for an outstanding lead performance—it deserves to be seen.