Pull no punches: how sports movies swapped triumph for truth

Where cinema once focused on underdogs winning against the odds, now films that focus on athletes in personal and physical crisis are showing the dark side of sports

Sports movies, like history, tend to be written by the victors. The Hollywood canon is packed with stories about winning – against all odds, at all costs, when it’s all on the line, in as noble and ruggedly masculine a fashion as possible. It’s the domain of guys like Burt Reynolds, Kevin Costner, Sylvester Stallone and Dwayne Johnson. But films such as Chloé Zhao’s The Rider are showing us the flipside of this mentality, which is not only that somebody has to lose, but that this stuff can really mess you up. You could call that more of an anti-sports movie, but given the cliches of the genreand a certain instability in ideas of American masculinity, there’s often a more interesting story.

The Rider is about rodeo, as all-American a realm as you could find. But our hero, Brady, is a young rider facing early retirement after an awful head injury. In one painful scene, he goes to visit his friend Lane in hospital. Lane’s rodeo career was also cut short by brain injury. Together they watch YouTube footage of Lane’s glory days as a cocksure young champ. Now Lane is a paraplegic who can only move one hand. What makes it all the more poignant is that this is not really fiction. Brady Jandreau and Lane Scott are real-life ex-rodeo riders essentially playing themselves.

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