The Rider (2017)

Directed by Chloé Zhao

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The Rider tells a vaguely fictional story, using nonprofessional actors to play a version of themselves and pulling from stories in their own lives.  The story follows Brady Blackburn (Brady Jandreau), a young cowboy who has just suffered a traumatic head injury from bronc riding.  His journey will be one of self-reflection and a push and pull between what he feels is his life purpose (horse/bronc riding) and a less risky way of living considering his compromised health.

This is a quiet, intimate film yet a jarring one at that considering certain images and a reality that seem hard or impossible to fake.  Then you read about it and find out that such reality is true to life.

Brady has a large, fresh wound on the right side of his head, covered with a thick bandage and heavy staples.  His friends will check in on him and as a way of comforting the sidelined rider they will recount stories of their own injuries.  Such pain is part of life, in other words.

They will encourage him to get back in the saddle, but Brady’s father (played by the actor’s real father, alongside his real sister) will push for him to play it safe, choosing to ridicule his son for not listening to doctor’s orders.

There is no real plot to The Rider, and there doesn’t need to be.  To describe what Brady experiences and ultimately comes to would be to ignore much of the film.  This is a beautiful film shot like a Terrence Malick movie with the hyper focus of a great documentary.

You ever watch a sports movie with a good actor who just has no idea what he/she is doing in the basketball/baseball/football/etc. scenes?  They kill it on the sidelines, but the minute the movie jumps into the athletic event, you can just see how false the whole construction is.  I think baseball is the best/worst example of this, actors generally don’t know how to pitch (the exception is Everybody Wants Some!!).

So The Rider has a similar balance, but Brady is at his best, his most natural when he’s working with horses.  There is a long sequence devoted to him getting back in the saddle (leading to movie’s poster image) and him training a friend’s colt.  It’s these moments that make you understand why Chloé Zhao made this movie.

This still being a fairly straightforward narrative film, there is a good deal of acting involved.  Sometimes you can see the limits of Brady’s range as a performer, usually in  the more talk-heavy scenes, partially because he himself seems like such a reserved person.

Still the acting works well enough, and as time goes on you might forget that any of this is staged.  There is one particular scene near the end of the film between Brady and a more severely injured friend and former rider, Lane Scott, that is pretty heartbreaking, mostly due to the reality of the situation (each rider’s injury being real) and to Brady’s performance.

This movie is very poetic, again in a Badlands kind of way.  The landscape is endless, serene, and it feels like we spend most of the movie around sunrise or sunset.  The music is calming and reminded me of another landscape-focused movie, 2017’s Columbus.  The movie can also be compared to Lance Hammer’s Ballast (2008), another indie drama centered around nonprofessional actors playing versions of themselves.

In the case of Ballast and The Rider, the power is simply in observing these characters/people and their ways of life.  Of course there is something universal in their struggle at the same time, but the more specific the movie gets, the more easily we identify with what they’re up against.

Brady looks like a cross between Heath Ledger and Shawn Hatosy.  He seems to have narrow eyes, as if he’s retreating into himself and away from the world.  His head wound is impossible to ignore, though by the end his hair grows back enough to hide the scar.  Still he has another scar over his left eye that hints at how much time, effort and pain has gone into this work through which he identifies himself.

He’s a cowboy, dresses like a cowboy and can’t help but live like a cowboy.  Such an image already feels dated, this being decades after the last John Wayne movie, and such a dynamic harkens back to the out of place-ness of Kirk Douglas’ cowboy in Lonely Are the Brave.  In that film he’s a man who lives by his own code and in his own time, even as the modern world sprouts around him.

For Brady and his family to scrape by he will have to get a job at a local market which feels as foreign to the rest of the film’s setting as the dystopian futures in movies like Blade Runner feel to our present day.  These moments set up what his life could be should he give up riding and demonstrates how lost he might be once such an identity is shattered.

So the film is about what makes us who we are and whether or not we can hold onto that core essence even as our routines, activities and lives change.

Up Next: Paddington 2 (2017), 45 Years (2015), Mother! (2017)

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