Winner of the top prize at Directors’ Fortnight, Chloé Zhao’s The Rider follows a young cowboy, Brady Blackburn (Brady Jandreau), forced to reconsider his dreams and priorities after a rodeo incident leaves him unable to ride again. The film is a hypnotic, sensitive yet brutal study of masculinity in crisis set in the alien world of the Badlands. One emerges from The Rider like from a dream.
At the Cannes Film Festival, I talked to writer-director Zhao about making a feminist film on masculinity, working with non-actors, and being a loner.
Seventh Row (7R): Your previous film, Songs by Brothers Taught Me (2015), was also focused on a male character and explored masculinity. Where does that interest come from?
Chloé Zhao (CZ): I went to a women’s college in Massachusetts, so obviously, feminism is in my blood. I’m a pretty independent, feminist person. Yet I find myself more interested in telling stories about men than about women — at least thus far in my career. Of course, I do think it’s important to create more nuanced female characters than have been portrayed through the male gaze, so that our daughters can grow up watching themselves authentically on screen. A lot of great female filmmakers — and male filmmakers — are doing that, but I find my calling more in portraying male characters through a female gaze.
I want to tell our boys that it’s okay to be vulnerable, that they don’t have to be like the tough winners on our screens. I want to tell our sons that they can have broken dreams, but a real hero is someone who keeps on dreaming anyway. They should know that a real hero can be vulnerable, cry, and still be loved. I think that’s also very important for feminism: bringing men and women together instead of making them enemies.