The Rider portrays the West as wild to its very marrow—albeit not necessarily in the ways one typically thinks of the cowboy-populated region.
The story of a young rodeo star faced with his own mortality, writer/director Chloé Zhao’s sophomore feature (winner of the Art Cinema Award at the 2017 Cannes Film Festival’s Directors’ Fortnight) amalgamates fiction and non-fiction with a deftness that goes hand-in-hand with its poetic evocation of a land—and people—caught between instinct and intellect. Underscored by age-old myths and yet rooted in a hardscrabble contemporary reality, and led by arguably the breakout performance of the year, Zhao’s follow-up to 2015’s Songs My Brothers Taught Me is a work of intense empathy and even greater perceptiveness. A legitimately transportive vision of a remote, and fading, corner of America, it’s a Western like no other.
We first see Brady (Brady Jandreau) in his trailer home, using a knife to remove staples in his head that are holding down a bandage intended to cover up a far more serious injury: a giant gash running across his skull, held together by giant metal fasteners. As elucidated by the subsequent action, that wound came from a bad spill in the rodeo ring, where Brady is an up-and-coming talent. Now laid up, he finds himself on the receiving end of admonishments from his dad Tim (Wayne Jandreau), an ostensible adult who spends most of his time getting tanked at the local watering hole, as well as caring for his sister Lilly (Lilly Jandreau), a fifteen-year-old girl who’s mentally impaired.
As those cast names imply, The Rider’s characters are, to varying degrees, based on these actors’ own lives, which lends Zhao’s film a potent sense of authenticity. Simply put, these men and women feel like they belong in this South Dakota landscape, where the blowing wind is life’s constant soundtrack, young men spend their evenings goofing off and getting high around hilltop campfires, and everyone reveres the stout cowboys who mount bucking bulls and broncos at the rodeo, holding on for dear life for as long as they possibly can. Zhao gazes at these lonely figures in both intimate close-ups and from a remove. Her perspective is unwaveringly compassionate, and still just detached enough to allow for a clear-eyed assessment of what makes them risk life and limb via this age-old pastime.
Incapable of continuing his rodeo career, Brady finds himself adrift, and pressure from his friends to “man up” and get back to the sport—as well as an unsatisfying job scanning goods and operating the cash register at Dakotamart—only further stokes his frustration, tempting him to do what he recognizes, deep down, is foolhardy. His head and heart at war, he soon resumes his primary job of training wild stallions for locals. And in prolonged sequences of Brady using a variety of techniques to quietly gain the trust and respect of the steeds, whose initial wariness and hostility melts away in the face of his tender skills, Zhao’s film captures something genuinely magical: a portrait of tactile and spiritual communion between man and animal.
In those moments as well as many others, the boundaries between reality and make-believe disappear, such that only piercing truths remain. Never is that felt more acutely, or revealingly, than in Brady’s visits to his old friend Lane Scott (Lane Scott), a former rodeo stud who used to make cocky YouTube videos starring himself, and who now resides in a hospital courtesy of a catastrophic ring accident that’s left him gravely impaired, both physically and mentally. For Brady, Lane is akin to his own personal ghost of Christmas yet to come—a cautionary reminder of what could be should he continue to indulge his rodeo ambitions. Nonetheless, in their loving rapport, marked by Lane telling Brady not to give up on his dreams, and Brady (who gets a tattoo of Lane astride a bull, set in front of a cross, on his back) simulating a riding experience for Lane, Zhao’s film conveys the innate call of the wild for these men, even as it simultaneously shows their world to be littered with individuals damaged (almost) beyond repair.
In gestures grand and minute, Zhao expresses unspoken depths about her characters’ interior lives. Be it a sharp cut from the sight of recovering Brady throwing playing cards across his living room to a wide shot of an imposing canyon, or later tracking shots of Brady riding harmoniously across the plains on a newly broken horse, The Rider requires few words to articulate its profound insights. Joshua James Richards’ gorgeous cinematography vacillates between handheld immediacy and mythic grandeur, the latter epitomized by a late, painterly vista of Brady standing in a field on the eve of a storm. Such beautiful imagery is married to an understated score by Nathan Halpern that’s at once melancholy and heartening—a mood that defines Zhao’s depiction of the everyday nuts and bolts of Brady’s existence, full of absentee and negligent parents, financial hardships and, for those who don’t have an education (which is most of these men), dead-end opportunities in every direction.
Despite a chronic condition that causes his hand to involuntarily clench—a side effect of his brain injury—Brady begins inching ever closer to returning to competitive riding. As it details that hazardous course, The Rider reveals itself to be a dreamy portrait of men and beasts struggling to tame the wildness that, in so many ways, defines them. Zhao’s treatment of that subject is, throughout, assured and affecting. And it benefits tremendously from the performance of her leading man.
In his screen debut, Jandreau exhibits an openness that comes across as—but is clearly anything but—effortless, his countenance radiating emotional shifts with a subtlety that would be impressive for even the most seasoned actor. As in a quietly tearful car ride, or his poignant interactions with Lane, Jandreau expresses the unruliness that defines Brady, and the prudent thoughts of survival that increasingly complicate his plans for the future—and, by extension, his very conception of himself.
It’s a breakthrough turn suggesting that, should he ever decide to hang up his Stetson and chaps, Jandreau has a promising future as a big-screen star. More immediate still, it helps make The Rider one of the year’s most arresting and unforgettable films.