The Rider, 2018.
Written and Directed by Chloe Zhao.
Starring Brady Jandreau, Tim Jandreau, Lilly Jandreau, Lane Scott, Terri Dawn Pourier, Tanner Langdeau, James Calhoon, Cat Clifford, and Derrick Janis.
After suffering a near fatal head injury, a young cowboy undertakes a search for new identity and what it means to be a man in the heartland of America.
Compromised of exquisitely striking images (capturing both alluring wide angle shots of a South Dakota Indian Reservation and close-ups of human and horse eyes longing with mental pain), the one shot that so accurately sums up The Rider (the sophomore feature from writer and director Chloe Zhao) is a simple one. While recuperating and recovering from a fatal rodeo injury that saw one of the majestic beings inadvertently crush Brady Blackburn’s skull (played by Brady Jandreau, the real-life actor portraying a dramatized version of himself alongside the rest of his family and friends) is briefly depicted bored at home flinging poker cards across the room one by one, signaling not just unbearable frustration with his current predicament, but a sense that his life is largely meaningless if he is unable to ride. Some individuals can’t help feeling put on Earth for a specific purpose whether it be cohesively writing up film opinions or entertaining fans of the rodeo circuit, and when that ability is taken away self-worth is unfortunately questioned.
Separating The Rider from other dramas is the risky decision (I’m still trying to forget the assault of terrible acting found in Clint Eastwood’s recent misfire The 15:17 to Paris) to cast people in the roles of their counterparts, but Chloe Zhao wisely sticks to their strengths. It goes without saying that the southern drawl feels authentic (Zhao has actually spent time previously on the Indian reservation while shooting her feature length debut Songs My Brother Taught Me, which is where she first met the Jandreau family and became inspired by Brady’s story, all meaning that she knows the locations well and carries knowledge of the customs these Indian cowboys live by further painting an achingly real portrait of a lifestyle that is usually mocked and played for cheap laughs on screen rather than shown empathy), but the body language and facial expressions conveyed captivates on unparalleled levels.
In many ways, it doesn’t even feel fair to other movies to label this acting or compare it against other experiences for awards considerations; it’s real. And when Brady visits his friend Lane (Lane Scott) who is now wheelchair-bound, unable to speak, and suffers constant uncontrollable body spasms… good luck not bursting into tears at some point during the scenes they share together. I am disabled, not to the extent of Lane, but my reality was enough to allow me to catch on, without looking up information, that what I’m watching goes beyond character work. On a related note and because representation does matter, other directors should look at this performance and consider casting people with disabilities for certain roles if everything is viable; no matter what, the performance will be more authentic.
Brady also has a fractured relationship with his gambling-addicted father (Tim Jandreau) but a moving kinship with his 15-year-old sister saddled with Asperger’s syndrome. Lilly Blackburn (Lilly Jandreau) is disarmingly charming as an intelligent soul that is often the voice of reason, and one of the very few valuables in life he has to live for aside from his chosen dangerous career path. Friends also pop in and out, but The Rider is equally a tale about the importance of family as much as it is determining one’s own destiny. Also, considering that one more bad fall has the probability of killing Brady, it’s more than metaphorical when I say that he controls his destiny within his hands. However, similar to how Darren Aronofsky put a serious lens to the unfairly ridiculed performance art that is professional wrestling in The Wrestler, Zhao is here to present this sport and its celebrities in a refreshingly respectful light. At the end of the day, it’s fine to still find rodeo participants stupid, but when a child asks for an autograph, or we see how this is a way of life for some people, or understand the joyous rush that comes from riding, irrational disdain may fade away from even some of the most cynical viewers.
The Rider is an accomplished poetic narrative; as previously mentioned Zhao is holding back on aspects such as conventional dialogue (the Jandreau family occasionally delivers lines awkwardly), letting the work of her regular photographer Joshua James Richards speak by lingering unbroken on true footage of Brady breaking wild horses for riding or homing in on the juxtaposition between man and animal with stimulating visuals. To be fair, there is probably just one too many moments of the former, but it has to again be admired how authentic this all is; The Rider unequivocally succeeds at transporting audiences to a different place and mindset.
Not to spoil anything, but to anyone following along with this review or the basic plot of the film, it should be blatantly obvious that Brady will have to make a choice; tend to his family even if it means working deflating convenience store jobs or risking death riding. Every second of the film is ripe with heavy emotional drama (including small moments such as the disgustingly unseeable glimpse of Brady changing the bandages over the ghastly stitches covering the injury). These are people I loved being around, coming away eager to learn more about them and their lives. I choked up watching the movie at certain scenes; The Rider is an unshakably devastating insight into an underrepresented working class mold and profession.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★
Robert Kojder is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Flickering Myth Reviews Editor. Check here for new reviews, friend me on Facebook, follow my Twitter or Letterboxd, check out my personal non-Flickering Myth affiliated Patreon, or email me at MetalGearSolid719@gmail.com