The Reelist is a column featuring Kristen Page-Kirby’s musings on movies. For Washington Post film critic Ann Hornaday’s review of “The Rider,” click here.
“Being a man” is a nebulous concept at the moment. We’re beginning to recognize that the idea of masculinity is a malleable one — “boys will be boys,” but what that looks like varies from boy to boy. Still, the archetype of American manhood is what you see in “The Rider”: Silent. Strong. Tough. There’s even a cowboy hat to seal the deal.
Based on the true story of Brady Jandreau (who plays the movie-fied version of himself, Brady Blackburn; relatives and friends of Jandreau also play versions of themselves), the drama is about a rodeo rider who, after a near-fatal accident, cannot ride again. Which means he’s basically lost: He makes a living as a talented horse trainer, but can no longer get on a horse. His father and others suggest that he man up and get back in the saddle.
“Man up” being the key phrase.
Writer-director Chloe Zhao has crafted not only a quietly heartfelt film, but a complex representation of a certain type of masculinity. It’s the kind that tells men to shake it off, to rub some dirt on it, to walk it off. Never show weakness, never show pain. And for God’s sake, don’t cry.
I am, for obvious reasons, not privy to many all-male discussions, so I don’t know what they’re like. One scene of “The Rider,” though, feels very real — probably because the amateur actors based their conversation on ones they’d had a million times before. They discuss all the injuries rodeo has inflicted on them. Broken wrists. Broken legs. Broken heads. One young guy laughs that “by NFL standards, I should be dead.” Then the conversation turns to Lane Scott, a friend of theirs whose rodeo-related brain injury has left him permanently paralyzed and severely brain damaged (it was a car accident that injured the real-life Scott).
When the next rodeo rolls around, though, they’ve all strapped their chaps back on.
It seems that so much of being a man is not only about surviving physical pain, but welcoming it. I can promise you that all-women conversations very rarely end up being a bragfest about what percentage of our bodies has been broken. (The exception is talking about childbirth, the one source of pain we’re expected to take on, thanks to Eve eating that apple.)
After his own accident, Brady is faced with a profound dilemma: The thing that gave him a role to fill, a place in the world, a way to live, now might kill him. Is life worth living if it’s not going to look anything like the only life you envisioned? Getting kicked in the head is manly. Obeying doctor’s orders to not get back on a horse again — ever — is not.
I hate that masculinity is so closely associated with the stoic bearing of pain. It robs men of the ability to be at least somewhat comfortable in weakness or in asking for help, to not be afraid of crying at movies — other than “Rudy,” one of the few films men are allowed to cry at. (“Field of Dreams,” “Saving Private Ryan” and “Toy Story 3” are also acceptable.) I imagine it is a difficult way to live.
“The Rider” is about one man grappling with masculinity, even though he’d never say that’s what he’s doing, probably because saying you’re “grappling with masculinity” is not masculine. Brady has to deal with the fact that he will never again be the man he was “supposed” to be — and whether that means he’ll never again be a man at all.
More Reelists from Kristen Page-Kirby