The Rider (2017, Chloé Zhao)

The Rider is a harrowing experience. The film establishes its stakes from the second or third scene; rodeo cowboy Brady Jandreau is recovering from a head injury. His horse threw him and stomped on his head, requiring a metal plate. He can never ride again, except his entire life has been about being a cowboy. He tells everyone he’s just taking time off to recover and will be back at it. The head injury has affected his motor control, so he can no longer rely on his hand.

The film opens with Brady taking off his bandage so he can shower—all of the principals have the same surname (to be discussed shortly), so I’m going with first names for simplicity’s sake. We then meet his father, played by Brady Jandreau’s father, Tim Jandreau (see), who’s wondering why Brady has checked himself out of the hospital early.

They live in rural South Dakota, along with Brady’s younger sister, Lilly (played by, you guessed it, Lilly Jandreau); we’ll soon find out Brady’s got no high school, no GED, nothing but years of experiencing training and riding horses. His friends are all rodeo cowboys, including best friend Lane Scott (played by Lane Scott), who had an undefined accident and is now disabled, with minimal motor skills. Brady visits him, and the two still bond over riding.

Brady’s other friends—particularly Tanner Landreau—bully him about getting back on the literal saddle. Writer and director Zhao arranges the entire film as a detached examination of toxic masculinity. But, at the end of the day, Brady needs to earn a living (dad Tim is unreliable with money, thanks to booze, gambling, and ladies), and all he knows is riding.

There are numerous discussions of Brady’s stubbornness (a trait he shares with his deceased mom); the viewer gets to see not just the inflexibility but the profound fear behind it. Brady’s fully aware of his possible fate—the film introduces Lane in conversation before the first visit—he knows all the risks and is determined to ignore them.

Just being around a horse is irresponsible and all Brady wants to do is be around horses. The film’s got some fantastic musing on riding, not just from Brady but also his friends. When they talk about it, there’s always the tragic longing for the escape those moments bring. So every scene where he’s around an untethered horse it’s a suspense sequence. Nail-biting, fist-clenching suspense. Regardless of skill—there’s a great training sequence where Brady’s got a spotter, so he’s not in the same kind of danger, and the horse training is an exceptional watch—he can’t trust his body; the viewer knows he can’t be trusted to consciously make the right decision either.

Brady knowing both those things about himself just adds further layers to the film.

The film’s semi-autobiographical (Brady and family have a different last name in the film), so Zhao is directing a cast of amateurs playing variations on themselves. And she gets incredible performances from all of them. The film’s very much the studying half of “character study,” inspecting how Brady reacts to various situations and how those reactions compound to influence his decisions.

And even though Zhao keeps the focus tight on Brady, she shows how people are seeing him, usually friend Cat Clifford. Clifford’s got a more soulful look at rodeo cowboy life than Brady’s other friends and tries to support Brady even when he’s making bad decisions (and give him the opportunity to amend those bad decisions). It’s an excellent arc for Clifford, who gives the film’s second-best performance after Brady.

All of the acting is at least good, often better. Zhao does a spectacular job with the performances. Alex O’Flinn’s cutting probably helps, but there are often long takes where The Rider stares at Brady, waiting for his interiority play (or not play) on his face. If it weren’t an amateur performance, if it weren’t semi-autobiographical, it’d be a perfect example of a “brave performance.” But given the peculiar situation of Brady’s performance, it’s even more profound. Especially since protecting his interiority is one of Brady’s character traits, he refuses help, whether from doctors, dad Tim, or friend Clifford.

Sister Lilly’s the closest thing to comic relief, but always with sincerity and sweetness, though never saccharine. She’s got an amusing technology subplot; mobile devices collide with the existing Americana in the film, with Brady and Lane spending their visits watching themselves on YouTube. It doesn’t seem like the healthiest bonding pastime, but the film doesn’t invite second-guessing. Even without knowing the film’s based on Brady’s real life, watching The Rider feels like a privilege. We’re getting to see something private.

Zhao’s direction is patient and expansive; she and cinematographer Joshua James Richards love the South Dakota prairie and big sky country. The film’s usually breathtaking, even during the suspense sequences. As we learn more about Brady, there’s a growing, aching quality to the wide-open spaces. Even more than the rodeo, it seems like that gigantic part of Brady’s life—always out his window—is cut off.

Great music from Nathan Halpern too. The technicals are all superb.

The Rider is a remarkable film; a tragedy and a triumph; an examination of Americana, machismo, and courage, with Brady—a Christian Native American cowboy in the mid-2010s—a singular protagonist. His performance, like the film, is one-of-a-kind.

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