You don't have to be an American to make a great western. In fact, you don't have to be Western.
Chloe Zhao, who's made one with The Rider, one of the most interesting neo-westerns in recent memory, was born in China and raised in Beijing. She has seen only two westerns in her life – an NYU film school requirement.
For the record, they were John Ford's The Searchers, and Sergio Leone's Once Upon a Time in the West, and maybe something about seeing an Italian director like Leone reinvent the genre left an impression on Zhao.
Certainly that what's she's done with The Rider, one of a slew of recent movies that revive, repurpose, or reference the enduring appeal of the movie western. Some are old-fashioned fun, like The Ballad of Lefty Brown, and some, like Hostiles, are stark reminders of frontier hatreds that revisit the bloody polarity of Indian-fighters pitted against Native Americans.
Zhao's contemporary film, set on the Pine Ridge reservation in the Badlands of South Dakota, is a horse of a different color. It so happens that the title character in The Rider, drawn from real life, is a cowboy and an Indian, and proud to be both.
Zhao met Brady Jandreau when she visited the Pine Ridge reservation while making her debut movie, Songs My Brothers Taught Me. He was one of many Sioux who compete on the Native American rodeo circuit. Jandreau, like fellow competitors, was raised on reservation ranch land, and with a love of horsemanship (he rode solo before age 2) expressed through a mastery of the craft of rodeo roping and riding. These Sioux have made the cowboy tradition their own, and they wear toughness and stoicism as easily as denim shirts and Stetson hats.
Though this cross-cultural hybrid may seem like "an American contradiction," Zhao said that dissonance dissolves when you watch men like Jandreau compete with skill and evident joy in Indian rodeo events – a fixture of life in the West for more than a century.
"It left such a strong impact," Zhao said. "I immediately saw it as the subject of a film and think I was just lucky to meet Brady, who's so good on camera, and whose story is so compelling."
She spent years filming Jandreau (who in the film goes by the name Brady Blackburn), his family, his friends, their lives, and the great, empty spaces of the Badlands where they live.
The Rider is a lightly fictionalized account of Jandreau's life – his career-ending injuries, his horse-whisperer gifts as a trainer, his deep connection to other wounded and injured riders, his profound devotion to his on-the-spectrum sister Lilly.
Zhao's only narrative guide was the direction of Jandreau's life, and yet, The Rider evokes a certain kind of melancholy western, the story of the cowboy who senses his time has passed, that his days in the saddle are numbered — films like Monte Walsh, or Lonely are the Brave.
"I think with Brady, what comes through is a human being in a relationship with nature. With the horse, with the land. It becomes a way of life, and there is a spirituality that comes out of it as well. In both the cowboy and the Indian lifestyle, being close to the land, being close to the natural world, these things are neighbors," Zhao said.
Her previous film on the Pine Ridge reservation examined the high rate of teen suicide among Sioux.
"I think the tragedy for so many of the young men on the reservation is that they have lost that spiritual connection to the natural world," she said. "And that's true across the culture, young people living their lives in front of the computer."
Those who see the film will be happy to know that in real life, Jandreau has been allowed to continue to use his remarkable gift for horse training (depicted beautifully in the film), and that his friend Lane Scott, severely injured, is now walking, and speaking – thanks in part to frequent visits from Brady, who was deeply involved in his rehab.
"I think what I personally find so inspiring about Brady is that he's a glass half-full kind of person, and that's not me. I'm not even a glass half-empty. I don't even have a glass," Zhao said.
You get a glimpse of Jandreau's spirit in The Rider as Brady takes a final ride on his favorite horse — hat pushed back by the wind, galloping along a ridge and looking like a figure in a Frederic Remington painting.
You see similar iconography in another accidental western – Lean on Pete, which opened last Friday. It's another contemporary story, this one about a homeless teen (Charlie Plummer) who crosses Wyoming with a horse he's saved from the glue factory. On the empty plain, under a purple evening sky, the two become detached from time, and shots of the boy and his horse merge into a stream of familiar images that are part the shared movie consciousness that draws from the western.
Other references are strikingly deliberate. The Hungarian movie 1945, currently in theaters, tells a Holocaust story by intentionally invoking the narrative framework from High Noon – men arriving on a train, drawing close to a panicked town whose inhabitants are forced into a sudden moral reckoning.
The appeal of the western has certainly rubbed off on Zhao, who's now immersed in writing one.
She's working on an epic about 19th-century lawman Bass Reeves, who escaped slavery in Arkansas, lived among the Five Civilized Tribes, learned their cultures and languages, and later became a U.S. marshal (sort of a real-life True Grit figure) skilled at capturing fugitives escaped to Indian country. (Too bad Woody Strode didn't live to star in it.)
"I still haven't seen as many westerns as I'd like," said Zhao. "I'd better get started."