Evocative of Cormac McCarthy’s Border Trilogy, Chloé Zhao’s magnificent The Rider is a paean to the contemporary American cowboy and to a way of life on the margins and in decline.

The Rider centres on South Dakota rodeo star and horse whisperer extraordinaire Brady Blackburn (Brady Jandreau). He’s just released himself from hospital after an accident that left him with a steel plate in his skull. There is an excruciating scene of Brady taking the staples out of his scalp, but we are to discover that cowboys have to ‘cowboy up’ and ‘ride through the pain’. Based on Jandreau’s own story, the protagonists play versions of themselves, with Jandreau’s father playing Brady’s ne’er do well dad and the actor’s sister playing Lily, his bra-loathing younger sister with learning difficulties and a protective streak. Mum is dead and dad is a hard-drinking horse trader who gambles away any money he makes. With Brady no longer winning rodeo competitions, times are tough. Will he be lured into the rodeo ring one more time or will he be able to hang up his spurs for good?

While this is a familiar theme that viewers have watched countless times, the way Zhao has scripted and directed The Rider makes it something new, though her docu-fiction style and use of non-professional actors shares similarities with that other fabulous director of the US underbelly, Roberto Minervini. And from the first scene, of Brady’s beloved horse Gus in a storm, Zhao visually draws you in to the story. There are all the trappings of the horseman here, including Brady’s bedcover with horses all over it: the cowboy literally sleeps under a horse blanket. When he gets home from hospital and unpacks his clothes, we see him pulling out the beautiful cowboy boots, embellished chaps and spurs out of a bin bag there is a sense that this rodeo life is about to be thrown in the trash.

Zhao fills the screen with plenty of battered and damaged men, from Brady with his ‘Frankenstein’ stitches to the cowhand who helps the family out with a hook for a hand. When Brady and his friends get together, they reminisce about their injuries like old soldiers comparing war wounds. Yet most of these men are barely out of their teens. The most heart-wrenching injuries are those sustained by bull rider Lane Scott (who plays himself). Lane was a hugely successful rodeo champ, winning thousands of dollars in just one season. However, after an accident – in the film a fall, but in reality a car crash – Lane is in a rehab centre, virtually mute, communicating by sign language and with severely diminished movement. Zhao shows us Lane pre-op, a handsome young man who was king of the rodeo world. Yet despite the painful vision of a man felled in his prime, Zhao depicts that the resilience of these young men and their camaraderie belies even the most terrible accidents. This is particularly true of Brady, who sees Lane as an older brother: he has learnt sign language to communicate with his friend and he uses riding techniques to spur Lane on in his rehabilitation.

The sweeping vistas of the South Dakota countryside are breathtaking, the miles of open country a reminder of the wildness that remains in pockets of the land. The camera follows Brady closely, often from behind his shoulder so that we get a view of things from his perspective. Music is used sparsely, usually accompanying the moments when Brady is on horseback and we are no longer contained in trailers, hospitals or supermarkets. Zhao has created an homage to the wild mid-west that provides an authentic view of the struggle to maintain a way of life in modern America. And thanks to Brady’s fortitude and humanity, it also shows us how to adapt and create new realities for ourselves whatever cards fate has dealt us. For all the hardships and literal knocks, thanks to Zhao’s amazing film the life of the cowboy has lost none of its romance.