There are many transcendent moments in The Rider, a modern-day cowboy drama set against the stormy plains and sweeping badlands of South Dakota.

Some of these moments are atmospheric—director Chloé Zhao capturing an iconic pose of a cowboy and his beloved horse at dusk, or a groups of friends around a campfire with a guitar out and a full moon above. Other times these moments are character-oriented—quiet yet profound interactions between friends, brothers and sisters, fathers and sons.

But the most transcendent moments in The Rider are, fittingly, those that show riding: cowboys on horseback galloping across the plains, basking in the warmth of the sun and the pleasure of the wind; rodeo stars acrobatically contorting to stay atop a bucking bronco; a horse trainer methodically taming a beast to the point that he can safely mount it.

These are powerful moments in part because they symbolize the beauty and dignity of human vocation. To tame a wild horse, to ride a bucking bronco, to saddle up and ride like the wind, feels right because it fits man’s creational mandate to bring order out of chaos. Every job—from cutting hair to stocking shelves to performing open heart surgery—is ultimately about this task.  

The Rider is not only one of the best films of 2018, but it is one of the best films about vocation I’ve ever seen. In its own quiet, non-preachy way, it reminds us of the dignifying power of work and purpose in human existence, even as it ponders the meaning of life when these things are taken away.

Blending Fiction and Documentary

Part of the appeal of The Rider is its authenticity. It’s a sort of neorealist portrait of Midwestern American life, starring non-actors playing versions of themselves. There is a long tradition of this sort of docu-fiction hybrid in cinema (classic examples include Vittorio De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves and Haskell Wexler’s Medium Cool), but the genre has enjoyed a renaissance in recent years. Films like Andrea Arnold’s American Honey (2016), Sean Baker’s The Florida Project (2017), and Clint Eastwood’s The 15:17 to Paris (2018) all prominently cast non-actors, with plots partially based on their real lives.

The Rider focuses on a group of Lakota cowboys whom Zhao first met while making her previous film, Songs My Brothers Taught Me, on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota. Zhao was particularly struck by the story of Brady Jandreau, a 20-something rodeo cowboy and horse trainer who in 2016 was nearly killed in a rodeo accident that left him in a coma and with a metal plate in his head. Advised by doctors never to ride again, Jandreau struggled with purpose and identity following the accident. He is a rider. This is what he was born to do. But is he willing to risk his life to preserve his sense of calling?

The Rider is essentially a slightly fictionalized retelling of Brady’s story, starring Brady Jandreau himself (renamed “Brady Blackburn” in the film), along with his real-life father, sister, and rodeo friends, all who play versions of themselves in sometimes scripted, sometimes improvised scenes.

Christian Artists, Take Note

Because the film hews closely to the real events of its characters lives, the “non-actor” dynamic is more compelling than distracting. Zhao wisely turns the camera on these people in their element, letting them “act” simply by living as they would live. Their real homes, real workplaces, real local haunts are used as sets. During the production, Brady spent the mornings training horses (his day job)—which became fodder for some of the film’s must spellbinding scenes.

Zhao knows that some of life’s most beautiful moments are unplanned. She wisely approaches filmmaking with a loose grip, an openness to redirection and serendipity that stems from an artistic humility, knowing that the world’s natural drama is usually more dramatic than our various manipulations of it. In this way she mirrors the aesthetic of film director Terrence Malick, who similarly prioritizes capturing serendipitous and “unnecessary” beauty (an afternoon thunderstorm, a swarm of birds, a funny moment between siblings) even when it serves no utilitarian plot purpose.

This is a style I wish more Christian artists would adopt. We of all people should recognize the inherent beauty and truth of the world—God created it, after all—and trust that simply turning the camera on this world, lovingly and attentively, can move audiences to transcendent places more readily than the most loquacious, didactic apologetics speech.

Christians of all people should recognize that simply turning the camera on this world, lovingly and attentively, can move audiences to transcendent places more readily than the most loquacious, didactic apologetics speech.

Zhao also has a tenderness to her gaze that sadly few Christian filmmakers seem to possess. It’s clear she actually cares about Brady and the film’s other subjects. They are subjects not in utilitarian service to Zhao’s plot or agenda. Her camera never exploits their pain, but it does linger in it empathetically, capturing the joy and sorrow of these lives with a rare, dignifying patience and presence. And yet Zhao’s gaze is also hopeful. She dignifies weakness without fetishizing it, celebrating the precious and meaningful nature of life even when it feels most hopeless.

Dignity in Weakness

There is a moment in The Rider when Brady describes a key difference between horses and humans. If a horse is injured in the way Brady was in his rodeo accident, it would be put down. But for humans, we must live on. Even when injury or illness takes us out of commission or renders us “useless,” we aren’t just shot as a horse would be (and is in the film). Why? Because as image-bearers of God, we possess a fundamental dignity that goes beyond our usefulness, strength, or beauty.

This is a truism about humanity that informs current debates about the sanctity of life (see the recent Alfie Evans controversy). It’s a truism that leads us to recognize the dignity and fight for the survival of the unborn child, the terminally ill, the disabled (as seen recently in the beautiful documentary Summer in the Forest), and others whose “viability” as humans (whatever that means) is called into question.

As image-bearers of God, we possess a fundamental dignity that goes beyond our usefulness, strength, or beauty.

Yet for Brady, it’s a truism that is personal. He’s a young man with strength and dreams and pride. His identity, his sense of masculinity, his ties to the cowboy life—all of this is threatened by his injury. Like so many other young men in America who struggle to find work for various reasons, Brady feels lost and dejected.

“I believe God gives each of us a purpose,” Brady says at one point late in the film, capturing its central theme. “For a horse it’s to run across the prairie. For a cowboy it’s to ride.”

Brady’s journey in the film is to discover new ways to live out this “ride” purpose, new pathways to channel this calling. He may never return to the rodeo ring himself, but maybe he can train the next generation of rodeo stars. Or train horses. Or stock shelves in a grocery story. Or simply be a good friend. Maybe the glory of “riding” is actually just a posture of embracing the journey of everyday life.

Vocation of Friendship

Some of the most powerful scenes in the film depict Brady visiting his real-life best friend Lane Scott, a former rodeo star who is now paralyzed, without the ability to walk or speak. Brady appears happiest when he is with Lane, joking and reminiscing and dreaming of riding again. Both men are broken—Lane more seriously than Brady—and both know their rodeo days are done. They share this bond, but not in a place of despondence and self pity. They connect in a deeper place, a place of hope that is almost eschatological.

Indeed, their embrace near the end of the film is arresting in its power and longing. It’s an embrace that says, “We will ride again, brother. This is not the end.”

For all its iconic imagery and frontier aesthetic, The Rider complicates the popular image of the Western hero. As stirring and freeing as it is to ride solo in life—to be a lone cowboy who conquers the wilds of unbroken horses and punishing prairies—this is not where we flourish most in life. We are most human in relationship with others. We are most alive not when our bodies are strongest but when our souls are most porous, loving others and letting ourselves be loved.

We are most alive not when our bodies are strongest but when our souls are most porous, loving others and letting ourselves be loved.

Though there is vitality and goodness when we pick up a hammer or put on a saddle—bringing order out of whatever corner of chaos we find ourselves in—ultimately our dignity is a gift we receive more than a status we earn. And when we receive this gift, we are freed from the burden of self-justifying purpose. Whether we find ourselves in a wheelchair, on horseback, in a cockpit, or in front of a computer screen, we can embrace the challenges in front of us with joy.