Despite lacking in dramatic intensity like its non-professional leading actor, The Rider is a perceptive character study that blends fact and fiction

The Rider

The Rider (2017)

Writ­ten and di­rect­ed by Chloé Zhao. Star­ring Brady Jan­dreau, Tim Jan­dreau, Lil­ly Jan­dreau, Cat Clif­ford, Ter­ri Dawn Pouri­er, Lane Scott, Tan­ner Langdeau and James Calhoon.

While re­search­ing for her de­but fea­ture film Songs My Broth­er Taught Me (2015) in the bad­lands of South Dako­ta, Chi­nese di­rec­tor Chloé Zhao came across a hand­some rodeo bronc rid­er named Brady Jan­dreau who worked at a ranch and be­gan to teach her how to ride a horse. At first, Zhao want­ed to in­clude Jan­dreau in one of her films, but it was only af­ter the rid­er suf­fered a se­ri­ous head in­jury falling from a horse that she de­cid­ed to write and di­rect a dra­ma based on his real-life ex­pe­ri­ence with Brady play­ing the role of him­self — or in fact a char­ac­ter based on himself.

The re­sult is the qui­et­ly per­cep­tive The Rid­er, a crit­i­cal­ly-ac­claimed char­ac­ter study that re-ex­am­ines mas­culin­i­ty in con­tem­po­rary, post-West­ern times. When the film be­gins, Brady Black­burn (Jan­dreau) is re­cov­er­ing from a fall off a horse that left him grave­ly in­jured with a skull frac­ture and a met­al plate in­sert­ed into his head. Liv­ing in pover­ty with his drunk­en fa­ther Tim (Wayne Jan­dreau) and his younger sis­ter Lil­ly (Lil­ly Jan­dreau), who has Asperger’s, Brady sees an im­pair­ment of the mo­tor func­tions in his right hand and is prone to vom­it­ing and seizures. Ac­cord­ing to his doc­tor, he should no longer ride, or else the seizures will get worse and that may lead to ter­ri­ble con­se­quences — like what hap­pened to Brady’s friend Lane (Lane Scott), who lives in a care fa­cil­i­ty af­ter a sim­i­lar accident.

Us­ing non-pro­fes­sion­al ac­tors play­ing close ver­sions of them­selves, Zhao cre­ates a nat­u­ral­is­tic film in which the line sep­a­rat­ing re­al­i­ty and fic­tion is near­ly dis­solved. The ex­pe­ri­ence, in the best tra­di­tion ini­ti­at­ed by Robert J. Fla­her­ty in Nanook of the North (1922), is akin to watch­ing a gen­uine doc­u­men­tary. As Brady tries to get back to his life pri­or to the ac­ci­dent, we see him tend to his beloved horse Gus, en­gage in triv­ial con­ver­sa­tions with his fa­ther and sis­ter (in a way that feels large­ly im­pro­vised) and lat­er start in a new “tem­po­rary” job at a su­per­mar­ket due to their fi­nan­cial prob­lems (they are two months be­hind with the rent af­ter Tim wast­ed their mon­ey in booze and gam­bling). In this place, noth­ing can be more dev­as­tat­ing for a horse rid­er of rel­a­tive renown than end­ing up as a farmer, as hap­pens to so many.

The film’s nar­ra­tive struc­ture is lin­ear and cen­tered more on ac­tions than on words. It is through what hap­pens that we ob­serve the grow­ing frus­tra­tion and de­pres­sion of this vir­ile man who is now forced to face his own vul­ner­a­bil­i­ty. As the skilled horse train­er that he is, Brady man­ages to “break” a wild horse but strug­gles to do the same with his chaot­ic, un­bri­dled life. Even more iron­ic, how­ev­er, is how he ends up hav­ing to sell his sad­dle in or­der to buy an­oth­er horse, or how a sac­ri­ficed an­i­mal mir­rors a reck­less de­ci­sion that might lead him to that same end. But de­spite all that, Zhao’s struc­ture also proves to be a bit dry, mov­ing schemat­i­cal­ly from one sit­u­a­tion to the next in a way that feels me­chan­i­cal and rep­e­ti­tious some­times, al­most as though we are read­ing a script.

And while Zhao and her cin­e­matog­ra­ph­er Joshua James Richards keep us as close as pos­si­ble to Brady with their con­stant use of close-ups and shal­low fo­cus, the director’s ap­proach comes off as re­strained and dry as well, not ex­act­ly al­low­ing us to con­nect with her char­ac­ter. For a film based on a real sto­ry, it doesn’t al­ways feel au­then­tic. Part of the blame is Jandreau’s, who is not a pro­fes­sion­al ac­tor and lacks the act­ing scope and dra­mat­ic in­ten­si­ty to con­vey Brady’s whole sad­ness (just pay at­ten­tion to the scene in which he strug­gles to cry while dri­ving a car).

But in the end, as a cer­tain char­ac­ter tells Brady not to give up on his dreams — de­spite be­ing him­self a liv­ing mir­ror of where Brady might end up — it be­comes hard not to praise The Rid­er for the com­plex dis­cus­sion it pro­vokes, mak­ing us won­der which de­ci­sion is the less­er of two evils af­ter all.

When the film ends, we still wonder.


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