“You boys don’t like to get your pride hurt,” Brady Blackburn (Brady Jandreau) is told early on in The Rider. A rodeo champion recently the victim of an near-fatal riding accident, Brady shrugs off the comment, but his pain – from the staples rooted in his scalp to the afflictions more concealed – suggest otherwise. Chloé Zhao’s sophomore feature transforms a largely true-to-life story of a 21st century rodeo and his striving for an identity in the wake of tragedy.

Zhao has crafted a heartbreaking tale of strife and struggle, which simultaneously acts as a breathtaking ode to the heartlands of the American Midwest. Indeed, Joshua James Richards, who shot Francis Lee’s God’s Own Country (another striking exploration of pastoral masculinity), does a similarly astonishing job in capturing Zhao’s film. Most impressive of all, though, Zhao manages to underpin all of this – the beauty of rural landscapes and a rodeo’s nadir of rehabilitation – with a piercing critique of masculinity and its seemingly irremovable essence in the construction of a man’s self-identity.

Still reeling from a near-deadly rodeo accident, we first meet Brady in recovery. He plucks the surgical staples off his scalp by way of a combat knife, before knocking back some painkillers and taking a drag of his cigarette. Save for a glass of bourbon, this is a depiction of a man in agony ripped straight from the cinematic manual – think Humphrey Bogart, Gary Cooper, John Wayne.

Brady isn’t this American hero, however. This much becomes clear as soon as we see him rewatching old clips of himself on YouTube, back when he was winning rodeo competitions – back when he was ‘Brady’. In between trips to the hospital and trips to the job centre, Brady looks after his younger sister Lilly (his real-life sister, the superb Lilly Jandreau) who has Asperger’s. It’s a guardian role that would be strenuous even without his stern father Tim (Tim Jandreau), his dad that drinks a little too much and gives Brady a hard time about ever rodeoing again.

These familial relationships ground not only Brady, but the film – provoking our rodeo into asking important questions about his reckless drive to probable death. Such questions are never asked without hindrance, however, with The Rider also excelling as an authentic portrayal of a working-class family, and all the internal clashes that this circumstance inevitably surfaces. Tim sells their family horse, providing yet another opening for this rodeo to reconsider his plight (not that Brady sees it that way, however).

Cowboys “ride through the pain”, we’re told, and it’s herein that Brady’s internal struggles are revealed. Confronted with the exalted, all-too-often pristine image of the cowboy – a staple of male American culture – Brady struggles to reconcile this ideal with his own circumstances. It’s a discrepancy that he can’t understand, and in doing so Zhao demonstrates the fragility of the male identity. Once you strip away the rodeo – the testosterone-fuelled hero in control of the untamed beast – what’s left?

As with Brady and his family, the rest of the cast is filled with amateur/non-actors who play a loosely fictionalised version of their real selves. This gives the film considerable authenticity, for one, but also serves to hammer home the tragic potential of Brady’s plight. Lane Scott was a rodeo like Brady, until a grave fall called time on his bourgeoning career and rendered him severely paralysed.

Brady pays his old buddy visits throughout the film, and while they certainly act as displays of friendship, they more pertinently remind Brady of the life-threatening danger he faces as a rodeo. Lane is a living example of what could have befallen Brady, and what might still. It’s why Brady holds onto his old buddy so dearly – later evidenced in a stunning, if sobbing, drive home (think Matthew McConaughey in Dallas Buyers Club, or Matthew McConaughey in Interstellar).

In what is only her second film, Zhao has created a cinematic achievement in serenity and subdued fragility. There are no extended monologues from Brady about his sense of self, or from others telling him why he needs the rodeo. When we just sit back and watch him taming a wild horse, we get it – we see what this means to Brady, how it completely negates his broken body and his fractured mind, showing him only a man in control. Yet, in pursuing this career, Brady’s riding to his death – and he often knows it.

Through drawing attention to this crisis of masculinity and search for ‘purpose’ (that is, identity), Zhao critiques the idols men have been told to look to – by society at large, but particularly the cinema, and the Westerns of the 20th century. Masculinity in the 21st century can thus be read as an aftereffect – a hangover from the adulated idols of a bygone era. Zhao is presenting us with a different kind of hero, and in doing so adds her voice to the group of contemporary filmmakers who are guiding us brightly into the next one.

Dir: Chloé Zhao

Scr: Chloé Zhao

Cast: Brady Jandreau, Tim Jandreau, Lilly Jandreau, Lane Scott

Prod: Chloé Zhao, Bert Hamelinck, Sacha Ben Harroche, Mollye Asher

DOP: Joshua James Richards

Music: Nathan Halpern

Country: USA

Year: 2017

Runtime: 104 minutes

The Rider is in UK cinemas from Friday 14th September.