THE RIDER (2018)
1 Hour and 44 Minutes (R)
When you ask someone to define the Western genre, it’s likely that the first thing they mention will be Cowboys and Indians or Cowboys and Outlaws, and it’s true that most films follow this formula. Even more modern Westerns like Hell or High Water and Wind River have high stakes shootouts that eventually come to bear. That’s not the case with writer-director Chloé Zhao’s film, though, and this cowboy drama is likely more Western than any of them.
The Rider follows the life of rodeo star Brady Blackburn (Brady Jandreau) as he tries to come to terms with the ramifications of a recently suffered near fatal injury. Blackburn’s challenge lies in having no other skill set. As a Lakota cowboy on the Pine Ridge Reservation and lacking any advanced education, all he knows is breaking horses and riding bulls. He’s good at it, and feels like it’s his calling, telling his sister Lilly (Lilly Jandreau), “I believe God gives each of us a purpose. For a horse it’s to run across the prairie. For a cowboy, it’s to ride.” But as the story progresses it becomes very clear that Brady’s injuries could result in permanent harm, or worse death. He’s left struggling with a question many can relate to – what do you do when you can’t do the only thing you know how to do well?
Key in Brady’s life (along with his younger sister who suffers from Asperger’s syndrome) are his father Wayne (Tim Jandreau) and closest friend Lane (Lane Scott). Lane also is recovering from life-threatening injuries, but unfortunately is paralyzed and unable to speak while being confined to a wheelchair in a hospital room. This relationship is central to Brady’s conflict. When out with local friends and family, he leans much more toward wanting to quite literally “get back on the horse”. But he also spends much of his time visiting and assisting with Lane’s rehabilitation, in one late scene holding the man’s hands in his own as if they were reigns and pretending to help him ride an imaginary horse. It’s in Lane’s pain that we see Brady wrestle with the obvious potential consequences if he continues to ride against the doctor’s advice.
The truth behind the story is almost more intriguing than what is on screen, though. Brady, his father, sister, and Lane are all played by the actual people who experienced this. That is to say, they are dramatically reenacting the events of their own lives. Even the locals are played by non-trained actors, and what’s incredible is that you can hardly tell. Zhao’s bold choice to do this seemingly pays off in the performance given by Brady. In a film with little dialogue, she relies on images and an understated soundtrack to do much of the emotional heavy lifting. The film is gorgeously shot too, capturing the landscape in its natural beauty, unmarred by modernized buildings and technology. Everything comes together and although it certainly moves at a slow pace, sitting with Brady as he drifts through this new version of his life trying to find his way is a powerful experience for every moment.
In The Rider, Chloé Zhao presents a much softer view of the rodeo cowboy life than audiences are used to seeing. Brady’s intelligence shows, and his internal dilemma between what he wants and what is best plays out in ways that are both painful and touching. The real-life portrayal of the Jandreau family adds another layer of realism, as well, creating a level of personal connection to the characters that may not have been reachable otherwise. As both a moving piece of storytelling and cinematic achievement, The Rider excels, and is definitely a slice-of-life Western ride worth taking.
Aaron White is a Seattle-based film critic and co-creator/co-host of the Feelin’ Film Podcast. He is also a member of the Seattle Film Critics Society. He writes reviews with a focus on the emotional experience he has with a film. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter to be notified when new content is posted.