I wear glasses. I would not survive in the wild. I would be one of the last to see a predator coming. My weak eyes would be culled from the genetic pool. Humanity would be stronger for it. But that’s not how humanity works, at any level. Whether it’s the near-sighted, the simple-minded, the infirm, the sickly, or even the completely shattered, our capacity for empathy compels us to value all human life. The religious traditions that knitted this into our civilization fall away, yet we still feel it keenly. It is a fundamental part of humanity. We believe more in being alive than being strong.
Chloe Zhao’s The Rider is a laconic yet lyrical expression of this idea, found in the barren expanse of South Dakota, among people who have the audacity to sit on top of a thousand pounds of brutish flesh that don’t want to be sat on. It bears a structural similarity to Darren Aronofsky’s The Wrestler. Mickey Rourke’s character, beset by age, injury, and exhaustion, can no longer do what he’s been doing all his life. His resolution is tragic and perhaps relatable, but facile. Might as well jump, The Wrestler eventually concludes.
The Rider knows the question of survival isn’t that simple. You can contrast the two movies by their relationship to staples. They’re the opening in The Rider and a turning point in The Wrestler, but each making a point about the limitations of the flesh. Both movies are about entertainers who wrestle brute strength into submission as a form of showmanship. But whereas The Wrestler belongs in the world of contrived stagecraft, The Rider situates itself alongside a very different world, an older world, a world that lives in the land, with a relationship to history and nature. The scene of Brady extending his hand to a panicked horse, a gesture combining empathy and dominion, puts him in a tradition going back through the Comanche, the Spaniards, the Mongols, the Macedonians, all of whom built empires on the backs of their powerful horses. But we don’t do empires anymore, at least not with cavalry. Horses, like cowboys, are a relic.
Cory Finley’s Thoroughbreds, a vicious sneer at the lack of empathy among the rich, uses horses as a metaphor. Actual horses are barely in the movie. But Zhao, who obviously appreciates the seemingly indomitable power of these beasts, isn’t interested in metaphors. She’s interested in truths. Before I saw The Rider, the only thing I knew about it was that it starred Rodrigo Santoro, who I’ve seen most recently as Thandie Newton’s cowboy love interest in Westworld. Or so I thought from looking at the poster. Boy, did I feel silly. To understand Zhao’s lack of interest in metaphors, to understand her approach to the usual trappings of moviemaking, acting, and even storytelling, to understand that The Rider is about inveterate truths that define humanity, you need look no further than the cast list.