Although it already happened earlier this year in director Clint Eastwood’s poorly-constructed drama The 15:17 to Paris, it’s rare for a filmmaker to cast the real-life subjects of a story to portray themselves in their own biopic. The decision, of course, is usually made when a filmmaker believes the non-actor, who actually lived through the experience, will bring an authenticity to the role.
While it has worked in the past with shock jock Howard Stern depicting himself in 1997’s Private Parts and Eminem playing a fictional version of himself in the loosely based biographical film 8 Mile, the concept is still a bold move – which is why you hardly ever see directors take this leap.
Don’t tell Chinese-American director/writer Chloé Zhao (Songs My Brothers Taught Me) that the idea is too risky for her new film The Rider. In what will easily go down as one of the best examples of this unusual casting process, Zhao has taken a tender narrative and transformed it into a breathtakingly beautiful drama that shoots straight to the heart. Yes, the performances from some of the novice actors in supporting roles are unpolished, but the spirit that emanates from the setting, characters, relationships and direction is brilliant.
In The Rider, Zhao taps former bronc rider-turned-actor Brady Jandreau to play the cinematic version of himself, Brady Blackburn, a young, Native-American cowboy from South Dakota reflecting on his life after suffering a severe head injury. In 2016, Jandreau was thrown from a horse and his head was trampled. A metal plate was fused to his skull, which was fractured in three places.
As Brady Blackburn, Jandreau revisits the recovery process and the difficulty of accepting that his rodeo days were over. Another head injury would surely prove fatal. But how does a tough young man let go of something that defines him? How does he turn his back knowing that nothing else in the world will provide him that much happiness?
Director Darren Aronofsky tackled these issues in his 2008 masterpiece The Wrestler, which followed a broken-down grappler at the end of his career. Zhao, too, exposes Brady’s vulnerabilities much like Aronofsky does with Oscar-nominated actor Mickey Rourke. The difference is that Brady, unlike Rourke’s character, feels like he has something to live for, which allows the film to take a more hopeful approach, which is augmented by Zhao’s decision to cast Jandreau’s actual father, sister and friends, including Lane Scott, a former bull rider who was paralyzed in an auto accident in 2013.
The Rider is Jandreau’s film, and he delivers a complexity and cowboy flair to the role that is unmatchable. Watching him train colts on the rugged Dakota landscape, confronting the idea of what it means to be a man and simply appreciating being alive is what makes The Rider so emotionally fulfilling.