Updated: Feb 6, 2020
A movie can engage its audience in many different ways. This time of year, viewers generally expect spectacle from the cinema. Action, explosions, thrills, scares and laughs are what is currently filling up multiplexes. However, if you are in the mood for something quieter, slower and much more personal, let me recommend The Rider, a drama following a rodeo cowboy as he tries to figure out where he fits in the world after a serious injury. It is neither flashy nor commercial, but it is as honest and intimate a film as you will find. It is also one of the very best of 2018 so far.
The Rider (100 minutes minus the end credits) tells the story of Brady Blackburn, a cowboy and horse trainer living with his father and younger sister on a reservation in South Dakota. It begins shortly after Brady suffers a head injury during a rodeo. While he recovers from surgery, he insists he is just taking a little time off to heal. Although his doctors make it pretty clear he should never ride again, for Brady and his friends, there is no point in living if you cannot ride a horse.
The film is about a man at a crossroads in his life when he may no longer be able to be the only thing he has ever been. It is also about a way of life not often seen onscreen. It is rare to see a contemporary cowboy in a movie. It is rarer still to see it taken so seriously. Finally, The Rider is a documentary-like drama starring non-actors as versions of themselves. All three of these things come together to create an uncommonly moving cinematic experience.
Brady is played by Brady Jandreau, a real-life cowboy and horse trainer who really did have to end his career after being thrown from a horse. His friends and family are played by his friends and family. While The Rider is not a documentary, it certainly feels like one. It is truthful about the lives of these people. It also contains moments of obvious reality such as a beautiful sequence where Brady breaks a wild horse. Apparently, during the production, someone asked Jandreau if he could train their horse. Writer/director/producer Chloé Zhao decided to film it as it happened. It is hard to accurately duplicate the feel of that type of moment. It is such a perfect scene. Watching him as he actually does what he loves and is good at tells you everything you need to know about what kind of man Brady is with barely any dialogue. It brings The Rider an extraordinary authenticity that extends throughout the entire production.
That quality is greatly assisted by the lucky choice of Brady Jandreau as the star. He may not be a professional actor, but he does not need to be in order to play himself. Much like in the (far lesser) The 15:17 to Paris, someone playing themselves can add a lot to a film’s sense of realism. The difference is that Zhao is really interested in relating Brady’s story instead of mainly using it as setup. I am sure some of what we see has been fictionalized, nonetheless, she mostly seems to roll the camera as these people recreate their lives. What results is a very sympathetic portrayal of a man being himself at a time when he was trying to figure out who that is.
It is not often a film truly makes me feel as though I have gotten to know another person, but The Rider pulls that off. Chloé Zhao has made an incredibly poignant drama that cares for and respects its characters. She never punches up the drama. What Brady goes through every day is compelling enough. She proves that sometimes just watching someone live their life can be extremely fascinating, if shown with empathy. It cannot have been easy to make a project like this. There is nothing especially cinematic about a character study focusing on an injured rodeo rider. Somehow, Zhao, Jandreau and the rest of the cast and crew were able to turn a small story into something remarkable.
4¾ out of 5
Brady Jandreau as Brady Blackburn
Tim Jandreau as Wayne Blackburn
Lilly Jandreau as Lilly Blackburn
Lane Scott as Lane Scott
Written and Directed by Chloé Zhao