Landscape and Time in The Rider (Chloe Zhao, 2017)

The Rider (Sony Pictures Classics, 2017)
Chloe Zhao’s The Rider reconfigures the iconography of the western. Jasmine Nadua Trice shows how the film evokes indigenous sovereignty by challenging settler-colonial ideas of landscape and time.
[This article is part of a dossier on Media In-Between.]

To explore the possibilities of a spatiotemporal “in-between,” this article considers the 2017 feature, The Rider, made by Chinese diasporic director Chloe Zhao in collaboration with the Lower Brule Sioux rodeo star and horse trainer Brady Jandreau, who plays a variation of himself in the film. The film is not about a city, but as Anishinaabe geographer Heather Dorries notes, there is a dialectical relationship between Indigeneity and urbanism.1Heather Dorries, “Indigenous Urbanism as an Analytic: Towards Indigenous Urban Theory,” International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 47, no. 1 (2023): 110–118. The Rider’s existence was premised on a presumed absence of the urban that would drive its genre conventions; in the western genre’s settler colonial ideology, the film’s landscapes are spaces for cities yet-to-come. But the film disorders this kind of linear chronology. Based on Zhao’s short, 65-page screenplay, the film includes several interludes of horse training that were not described in the script itself, set against the landscape of the badlands. The sequences create a space of performance that blurs the boundaries between documentary and fictional image, while lending a form of authorship to Jandreau, his equine costars, and the landscape itself. Rather than using western iconography to make claims for its setting’s modernity, the film puts aside the premise of “coevalness” — the idea of Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples inhabiting a shared contemporaneity. Instead, it inhabits a space of liminality, an in-between that refuses easily containable categories based in a politics of recognition.

Brady. Still from The Rider (Sony Pictures Classics, 2017)

In the brief discussion that follows, I consider moments of what Mark Rifkin calls “temporal sovereignty” in the film.2Mark Rifkin, Beyond Settler Time: Temporal Sovereignty and Indigenous Self-Determination (Durham: Duke University Press, 2017). The reading is less a definitive claim than a tentative offering, given that I am a non-Indigenous scholar who works outside of this area of study. But I am interested in the potentials of the film’s form, which I have found useful for teaching film aesthetics and narrative. It is by no means a straightforward example of “Indigenous cinema,” if at all.3For more discussion of Indigenous cinema, see Joanna Hearne, Native Recognition: Indigenous Cinema and the Western (Albany: SUNY Press, 2012); Michelle Raheja, Reservation Reelism: Redfacing, Visual Sovereignty, and Representations of Native Americans in Film (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2011). It is made by a non-Indigenous filmmaker living and working outside the community it depicts. But through considering particular aspects of the film, including landscape and production narratives, I am interested in how temporal sovereignty might connect to the ways the film metabolizes the fragmented ruins of a genre so associated with settler colonial violence. It is an art film, a melodrama of masculinity, and a sports movie; it is also, in a certain sense, a western. The western’s haunting presence in the film evokes the ways that genres have been theorized in relation to time, aesthetic form, and colonial histories/presents. In her influential work on cinema as temporal translation, Bliss Cua Lim posits the idea of the fantastic as a kind of “mistranslation” between the homogenous time of science and history (universalist time) versus the heterogenous time of the folk and popular, which has been devalued. If imperialism is a refusal of temporal plurality — as Lim describes, a form of “temporal containment” that creates anachronism as a “necessary fiction of heterotemporality” — the fantastic becomes a kind of translation “with the seams showing,” a way of demonstrating the incompatibility of different temporal orders.4 Bliss Cua Lim, Translating Time: Cinema, the Fantastic, and Temporal Critique (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2009), 89. Working with fragmented evocations of the western, The Rider offers a variation of this temporal mistranslation in a different generic mode, refusing the frameworks of settler time in ways that speak to the histories of its location.

Genre. Still from The Rider (Sony Pictures Classics, 2017)
Landscape. Still from The Rider (Sony Pictures Classics, 2017)

Sovereignty, as Michelle Raheja (Seneca) argues, is the most powerful term in Indigenous studies due to its refusal of settler claims of nationhood. Calling for an account of what she calls “visual sovereignty,” Raheja writes, “it is critical to insist on a much broader notion of sovereignty that takes seriously the importance of sovereignty as it is expressed intellectually, politically, socially, and individually (I would even add therapeutically) in cultural forms as diverse as dance, film, theater, the plastic arts, literature, and even hip-hop and graffiti.”5 Raheja, Visual Sovereignty; Stephanie Nohelani Teves, Andrea Smith, and Michelle Raheja, eds., Native Studies Keywords (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2015), 25–34, 28. As a particular way of approaching filmic sound and image, sovereignty can be an aesthetic mode of refusal.6Anthropologist Audra Simpson (Cherokee) theorizes refusal as an alternative to the politics of recognition, the multicultural appropriation of difference by the settler state; as she writes, the Mohawks of Kahnawà:ke “deploy it as a political and ethical stance that stands in stark contrast to the desire to have one’s distinctiveness as a culture, as a people, recognized.” For Simpson, refusal is strategic, engendering possibilities for new ways of being. Audra Simpson, Mohawk Interruptus: Political Life Across the Borders of Settler States (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2014).

In The Rider, this refusal is not only about cultural representation, but also about how the films highlight genre iconographies that would ostensibly evoke a settler colonial temporal order—cowboy hats, country music, the rodeo, sublime images of landscapes traversed on horseback. In the history of American cinema, these are harbingers of “progress” and colonial violence. As scholars of the western have argued, the mythologies associated with the genre rely on a linear temporality, which renders the western “frontier” the staging ground for US imperial expansion, predicated on Indigenous dispossession.7 Rick Altman, “A Semantic/Syntactic Approach to Film Genre,” in Film Genre Reader IV, ed. Barry Keith Grant (University of Texas Press, 2012), 27–41; Richard Slotkin, Gunfighter Nation: The Myth of the Frontier in Twentieth-Century America (Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 1998). The Hollywood western is a product of public discourses that surrounded federal Indian policy, as well as the proto-cinematic media that accompanied it; the work of Indigenous images and of the Indigenous media-makers behind them have been foundational to American film history, even as they have been erased.8 Hearne, Native Recognition. As Rifkin writes in Beyond Settler Time, dominant temporal models such as those found in the western film rely on the idea of Native lives as “always in the process of vanishing and as ceasing to be truly Indigenous if their practices deviate from a (stereotypical) model implicitly pegged to a particular moment in the past…”.9Rifkin, Beyond Settler Time, viii. As a response, scholars have emphasized “coevalness,” locating Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples within a shared modernity. But Rifkin points out that such discussions can inadvertently privilege settler ideas of time; as an alternative, he gestures toward a concept of what he terms “temporal sovereignty”: “the need to address the role of time (as narrative, as experience, as immanent materiality of continuity and change) in struggles over Indigenous landedness, governance, and everyday socialities.”10Rifkin, Beyond Settler Time, x. Conceiving of sovereignty in cultural and artistic forms, outside of legal terms, Raheja argues, is a way of “understanding the world and representing varied experiences of life.”11Raheja, Visual Sovereignty, 29.

Rider. Still from The Rider (Sony Pictures Classics, 2017)

The Rider’s relationship with cinematic time lies in part in its representational ambiguity. While the idea of authenticity relies on a temporal relationship between “pure” original and “corrupted” copy, the film troubles such linear constructs, creating a more fluid constellation of influences and cultural markers. Both the feature film and the paratextual stories of its production create a world that embraces slippery, novel forms of relation among distant, seemingly contradictory geographic and temporal contexts. Its western trappings are untethered from their origins, taking new life against a vast, animate landscape.

Fire. Still from The Rider (Sony Pictures Classics, 2017)
Dusk. Still from The Rider (Sony Pictures Classics, 2017)

The Rider is the second film that director Zhao made on the Oglala Lakota Sioux Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, a place she began visiting when completing graduate school at New York University. Living in New York City, she describes feeling the need for open spaces, a desire she likened to her own upbringing in a very distant place: “I’ve always had a feeling for plains…I remember visiting Inner Mongolia as a kid and feeling something that I didn’t feel in Beijing.”12Quoted in John Powers, “How Chloé Zhao Reinvented the Western,” Vogue, March 22, 2018, https://www.vogue.com/article/chloe-zhao-the-rider-vogue-april-2018 Having initially contacted residents on Facebook, Zhao speculated that people were interested in working with her because she was not making a documentary, but a fictional film, albeit drawn from their stories. As the film’s eventual star Brady Jandreau relates, The Rider is 60 percent based on his story, and 40 percent fiction.13Landmark Theaters, “The Rider – Chloé Zhao, Brady Jandreau, Joshua James Richards, and Alex O’Flinn Q&A,” YouTube, April 17, 2018. Zhao stated in a 2015 interview with Screen Daily about her first film, “I just turned up and started knocking on doors and everyone was very inviting – although I think it helped that I look like this…People just thought it was funny that a Chinese girl wanted to make a film about them.”14Liz Shackleton, “Chloe Zhao Talks about Her Journey from China to Dakota,” Screen Daily, May 17, 2015, https://www.screendaily.com/chloe-zhao-talks-about-her-journey-from-china-to-dakota/5088343.article. Over the course of two films, she spent seventeen months over three years on the reservation, learning to saddle and ride horses and move cattle as she worked on developing scripts for her films. The residents called her “Auntie Chloe,” and she describes being mistaken for Lakota until she spoke in English with a Chinese accent.15 Amy Nicholson, “Wild Horses: How ‘The Rider’ Became the Breakout Movie of 2018,” Rolling Stone, April 13, 2018, https://www.rollingstone.com/movies/movie-features/wild-horses-how-the-rider-became-the-breakout-movie-of-2018-629297/ As Jandreau described their working relationship, “I’m a horse trainer and she’s an actor trainer…The fact that Chloé was willing to open herself up to our world made us willing to open us up to hers.”16 Quoted in John Powers, “How Chloé Zhao Reinvented the Western,” Vogue, March 22, 2018, https://www.vogue.com/article/chloe-zhao-the-rider-vogue-april-2018

Set. Behind the scenes photo from The Rider (Sony Pictures Classics, 2017)

By this account, Zhao was a “funny” interloper, a foreigner whose gender and ethnic ambiguity within this space made her a more welcome figure than she may have been otherwise. Zhao’s desire to “go west” speaks to a long history of settler colonial impulses to read specific place as general, interchangeable space, both in the US and in China.17On Zhao’s relationship to Chinese film, see Gina Marchetti, “Chloé Zhao and China: The Nomadland Moment,” Film Quarterly, April 28, 2021,
https://filmquarterly.org/2021/04/28/chloe-zhao-and-china-the-nomadland-moment/.
But the collaborative nature of the work does lend agency to the Lakota performers who participated in the film. In one small example, the director sometimes had to work according to their schedules. In the filming process, the young Lakota cowboys would be cantankerous, or not show up.18Quoted in John Powers, “How Chloé Zhao Reinvented the Western,” Vogue, March 22, 2018, https://www.vogue.com/article/chloe-zhao-the-rider-vogue-april-2018 Zhao would later arrange for the cast to receive a part of the film’s profits.19Quoted in John Powers, “How Chloé Zhao Reinvented the Western,” Vogue, March 22, 2018, https://www.vogue.com/article/chloe-zhao-the-rider-vogue-april-2018 This kind of negotiated collaboration is not new. Scholars have written about how Native peoples arbitrated their representation and labor in arenas such as politics, Wild West Shows, world’s fairs, and classical Hollywood film production.20Kiara M. Vigil, Indigenous Intellectuals: Sovereignty, Citizenship, and the American Imagination, 1880–1930 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015); Linda Scarangella McNenly, Native Performers in Wild West Shows: From Buffalo Bill to Euro Disney (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2012); David Beck, Unfair Labor? American Indians and the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2019); Liza Black, Picturing Indians: Native Americans in Film, 1941–1960 (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2022). My interest here is in highlighting the potentials of the cinematic space the film constructs through this complex process of negotiation between its Indigenous and non-Indigenous participants.

Horses. Still from The Rider (Sony Pictures Classics, 2017)

Some of this representational negotiation occurred through images of the landscape, which both reference and disrupt conventional film histories. Eventually, UK-born cinematographer Joshua James Richards joined Zhao in South Dakota. Richards, a fellow student at NYU, grew up watching westerns, a body of work that Zhao was largely unfamiliar with. Although the main aesthetic influence Zhao and Richards cite is art house director Terrence Malick, certain shots were conceived to evoke John Ford’s style of capturing cowboy-hatted, silhouetted men in landscapes. That the young men, in this instance, are Lakota Sioux rodeo riders, works against the historical evocations of such images, complicating the iconographic figure of the white settler cowboy. The cowboy here does not represent a leap into modernity, or a break with older temporal formations. Rather, the film’s form upsets settler ideas of time and continuity, creating a more tangled genealogy of influences. The film even disrupted continuity in a literal sense. Editor Alex O’Flinn described the film’s lack of continuity in a post-screening Q&A:

I think we very quickly realized that the way this movie was shot, unlike other films, there’s sort of a fluidity in the timing and almost like a dreamlike state. So, when you have footage like that, it kind of allows you to break more conventional rules of continuity, of time, of that sort of thing. So, for instance, if you notice, like Brady is never wearing the same shirt. He’s never wearing the same handkerchief. Hopefully people won’t notice…But I think that’s the power of story that Chloe and Brady and Joshua shaped.21Landmark Theaters, “The Rider – Chloé Zhao, Brady Jandreau, Joshua James Richards, and Alex O’Flinn Q&A,” YouTube, April 17, 2018.

Rather than shots seamlessly linked to create a sense of coherent narrative time, the shooting conditions created a film whose adherence to classical form remains at the surface level. The film unsettles conventional ideas of linear continuity, from the macro scale of film history to the micro scale of the film itself.

Training. Still from The Rider (Sony Pictures Classics, 2017)

This fluid way of shooting was also a response to its combination of human and nonhuman participants. Rather than privileging human agency, environmental conditions and animals became key players in the film’s production process, creating different temporal rhythms. The shooting schedule was dependent on the light, which involved waiting hours for the sky to change. The horses being trained in the film were being trained in real time. The production calibrated its own temporality — of labor, of “creative production” — to the contingencies of its environment.

This privileging of nonhuman participants is also apparent in the ways the production blurred the boundaries between human and nonhuman performances, creating another in-between that works against genre conventions. The story of Brady training his horse Apollo was based on Jandreau’s experience with one of his own horses; as Jandreau clarified, lending a sense of artistic agency to his equine companion, Apollo was played by a different horse in the film.22Landmark Theaters, “The Rider – Chloé Zhao, Brady Jandreau, Joshua James Richards, and Alex O’Flinn Q&A,” YouTube, April 17, 2018. As a rider who works closely with his animals, Jandreau has discussed his own closeness to the creatures: “I feel like I can identify with horses better than I can identify with people.”23Jeffrey Edalatpour, “In ‘The Rider,’ Chloé Zhao Tells an Intimate and Cautionary Tale,” KQED, April 20, 2018, https://www.kqed.org/arts/13829496/chloe-zhao-the-rider-brady-blackburn A dream he had during the coma that followed his rodeo accident later became the oneiric opening of the film. Jandreau recounts dreaming that the hospital staff were trainers as they cut off his clothes and placed his neck brace: “I was a horse being trained…He was really calm, and pretty soon, he got on, and rode, and everything. I tried to buck him off. I remember it vividly.”24Jeffrey Edalatpour, “In ‘The Rider,’ Chloé Zhao Tells an Intimate and Cautionary Tale,” KQED, April 20, 2018, https://www.kqed.org/arts/13829496/chloe-zhao-the-rider-brady-blackburn The scenes of horse training are not scenes of an animal being broken into submission, but of an intimate conversation between horse and rider.25Jandreau has described his relationship with horses as linked to his identity: “I could actually ride and control a horse was before I was potty-trained…As far as my ancestry goes, we were always a horse people. So a lot of stuff has been passed down. It’s in my blood. My wife is a horsewoman. My daughter is 13 months old and she can already control a horse by herself.” Quoted in Tara Brady, “Brady Jandreau’s strange journey from rodeo star to film star,” Irish Times, September 13, 2018.

Intimacy. Stills from The Rider (Sony Pictures Classics, 2017)

This, perhaps, is the film’s most potent disruption of settler time and the cinematic iconographies associated with it. The images of Brady Blackburn/Brady Jandreau riding Apollo across the landscape evoke not the conquering of the wilderness but a sense of deep time, the close interrelation between rider, horse and land indexing a past beyond history. Indigenous scholars have long argued for the idea of land and place as “sets of relationships between human and nonhuman beings, co-constituting one another.”26Anja Kanngieser and Zoe Todd, “3. from Environmental Case Study to Environmental Kin Study,” History and Theory 59, no. 3 (2020): 385–93, 386. See also Sandra Styres, “Literacies of Land: Decolonizing Narratives, Storying, and Literature,” in Indigenizing and Decolonizing Studies in Education: Mapping the Long View, ed. Linda Tuhiwai Smith, Eve Tuck, and K. Wayne Yang (New York: Routledge, 2019); Vanessa Watts, “Indigenous Place-Thought and Agency amongst Humans and Non-Humans (First Woman and Sky Woman Go on a European World Tour!),” Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education & Society 2, no. 1 (2013). Moreover, landscapes are temporal and processual, rather than static; archaeologists observe that landscapes are time materializing, subjective processes rather than empirical vistas.27Barbara Bender, “Time and Landscape,” Current Anthropology 43, no. S4 (2002): S103–S112. The scenes of Brady/Jandreau riding across the plains of the landscape become a time outside of narrative, a moment of temporal sovereignty on screen. A man in a cowboy hat, tearing across a landscape on his steed — this is the image perhaps most closely associated with cinema’s complicity in settler colonial time. But here it is an image of intimacy, despite the vast expanse. It does not hearken back to the past, but invites a consideration of what unexpected forms cinematic temporal sovereignty might take.

Notes

Notes
1 Heather Dorries, “Indigenous Urbanism as an Analytic: Towards Indigenous Urban Theory,” International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 47, no. 1 (2023): 110–118.
2 Mark Rifkin, Beyond Settler Time: Temporal Sovereignty and Indigenous Self-Determination (Durham: Duke University Press, 2017).
3 For more discussion of Indigenous cinema, see Joanna Hearne, Native Recognition: Indigenous Cinema and the Western (Albany: SUNY Press, 2012); Michelle Raheja, Reservation Reelism: Redfacing, Visual Sovereignty, and Representations of Native Americans in Film (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2011).
4 Bliss Cua Lim, Translating Time: Cinema, the Fantastic, and Temporal Critique (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2009), 89.
5 Raheja, Visual Sovereignty; Stephanie Nohelani Teves, Andrea Smith, and Michelle Raheja, eds., Native Studies Keywords (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2015), 25–34, 28.
6 Anthropologist Audra Simpson (Cherokee) theorizes refusal as an alternative to the politics of recognition, the multicultural appropriation of difference by the settler state; as she writes, the Mohawks of Kahnawà:ke “deploy it as a political and ethical stance that stands in stark contrast to the desire to have one’s distinctiveness as a culture, as a people, recognized.” For Simpson, refusal is strategic, engendering possibilities for new ways of being. Audra Simpson, Mohawk Interruptus: Political Life Across the Borders of Settler States (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2014).
7 Rick Altman, “A Semantic/Syntactic Approach to Film Genre,” in Film Genre Reader IV, ed. Barry Keith Grant (University of Texas Press, 2012), 27–41; Richard Slotkin, Gunfighter Nation: The Myth of the Frontier in Twentieth-Century America (Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 1998).
8 Hearne, Native Recognition.
9 Rifkin, Beyond Settler Time, viii.
10 Rifkin, Beyond Settler Time, x.
11 Raheja, Visual Sovereignty, 29.
12, 18, 19 Quoted in John Powers, “How Chloé Zhao Reinvented the Western,” Vogue, March 22, 2018, https://www.vogue.com/article/chloe-zhao-the-rider-vogue-april-2018
13 Landmark Theaters, “The Rider – Chloé Zhao, Brady Jandreau, Joshua James Richards, and Alex O’Flinn Q&A,” YouTube, April 17, 2018.
14 Liz Shackleton, “Chloe Zhao Talks about Her Journey from China to Dakota,” Screen Daily, May 17, 2015, https://www.screendaily.com/chloe-zhao-talks-about-her-journey-from-china-to-dakota/5088343.article.
15 Amy Nicholson, “Wild Horses: How ‘The Rider’ Became the Breakout Movie of 2018,” Rolling Stone, April 13, 2018, https://www.rollingstone.com/movies/movie-features/wild-horses-how-the-rider-became-the-breakout-movie-of-2018-629297/
16 Quoted in John Powers, “How Chloé Zhao Reinvented the Western,” Vogue, March 22, 2018, https://www.vogue.com/article/chloe-zhao-the-rider-vogue-april-2018
17 On Zhao’s relationship to Chinese film, see Gina Marchetti, “Chloé Zhao and China: The Nomadland Moment,” Film Quarterly, April 28, 2021,
https://filmquarterly.org/2021/04/28/chloe-zhao-and-china-the-nomadland-moment/.
20 Kiara M. Vigil, Indigenous Intellectuals: Sovereignty, Citizenship, and the American Imagination, 1880–1930 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015); Linda Scarangella McNenly, Native Performers in Wild West Shows: From Buffalo Bill to Euro Disney (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2012); David Beck, Unfair Labor? American Indians and the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2019); Liza Black, Picturing Indians: Native Americans in Film, 1941–1960 (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2022).
21, 22 Landmark Theaters, “The Rider – Chloé Zhao, Brady Jandreau, Joshua James Richards, and Alex O’Flinn Q&A,” YouTube, April 17, 2018.
23 Jeffrey Edalatpour, “In ‘The Rider,’ Chloé Zhao Tells an Intimate and Cautionary Tale,” KQED, April 20, 2018, https://www.kqed.org/arts/13829496/chloe-zhao-the-rider-brady-blackburn
24 Jeffrey Edalatpour, “In ‘The Rider,’ Chloé Zhao Tells an Intimate and Cautionary Tale,” KQED, April 20, 2018, https://www.kqed.org/arts/13829496/chloe-zhao-the-rider-brady-blackburn
25 Jandreau has described his relationship with horses as linked to his identity: “I could actually ride and control a horse was before I was potty-trained…As far as my ancestry goes, we were always a horse people. So a lot of stuff has been passed down. It’s in my blood. My wife is a horsewoman. My daughter is 13 months old and she can already control a horse by herself.” Quoted in Tara Brady, “Brady Jandreau’s strange journey from rodeo star to film star,” Irish Times, September 13, 2018.
26 Anja Kanngieser and Zoe Todd, “3. from Environmental Case Study to Environmental Kin Study,” History and Theory 59, no. 3 (2020): 385–93, 386. See also Sandra Styres, “Literacies of Land: Decolonizing Narratives, Storying, and Literature,” in Indigenizing and Decolonizing Studies in Education: Mapping the Long View, ed. Linda Tuhiwai Smith, Eve Tuck, and K. Wayne Yang (New York: Routledge, 2019); Vanessa Watts, “Indigenous Place-Thought and Agency amongst Humans and Non-Humans (First Woman and Sky Woman Go on a European World Tour!),” Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education & Society 2, no. 1 (2013).
27 Barbara Bender, “Time and Landscape,” Current Anthropology 43, no. S4 (2002): S103–S112.
Trice, Jasmine N. Landscape and Time in The Rider (Chloe Zhao, 2017). Mediapolis: A Journal of Cities and Culture 9, no. 2 (June 2024)
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