Lame horses get shot and broken cowboys get put out to pasture in Chloé Zhao’s The Rider, a soulful, touching look at ranchers and riders in the modern American heartland, based on the real-life experiences of its lead, former rodeo performer Brady Jandreau.
Zhao, who previously looked at vulnerabilities on the open plain in 2015’s Songs My Brother Taught Me, casts unknowns and keeps the film light and loose, its wide open landscapes of sky and rock the backdrop to the pain of a talented rodeo cowboy forced to hang up his stirrups and face the existentialist wilderness after suffering a traumatic brain injury on the job.
Real-life family the Jandreaus play the Blackburns, who make a very modest living in a trailer in South Dakota. The mother of the family is dead, and dad Wayne (Tim Blackburn) spends a lot of time drinking and gambling, just about providing support for siblings Brady and Lilly (a spirited, funny girl with developmental issues). After surgery, a bandaged Brady returns home with a metal plate in his head. He’s desperate to heal up and get back on the saddle, but there’s physical and psychological fallout to the trauma. The fingers on his right hand keep locking in place —mini-seizures, it turns out — a big deal for a rodeo rider, whose success depends on seamless control of a furious, kicking animal.
For the first time in his life, Brady’s getting an idea of what it feels like to be the animal in the equation. And it hurts.
Brady’s whole sense of what it is to be a man is wrapped up in being a cowboy, and it’s a sensitive, almost poetic, way of being, in pained contrast to the artificially lit supermarket job he takes on ‘just while he gets better’. Scenes of him training and breaking in difficult horses have a lyrical, nimble quality to them, a circular rhythm of trust building and communication. Brady and his cowboy friends aren’t the most immediately articulate people, and Jandreau’s face carries a distanced severity that recalls a younger Christian Bale, but an underlying gentleness shines through.
With the way forward uncertain, Brady is confronted with uninspiring images of possible futures. There’s his Dad, who doesn’t seem to believe in much anymore, and his former rodeo mentor Lane Scott (again, played by Lane Scott), left mute and severely disabled after his own accident some years ago. Brady visits Lane at his care facility and they relive old glories through Youtube videos, and the younger rider using physio ropes to simulate horse-taming gestures, in heart-breaking displays of wounded compassion.
There is a whole physical vocabulary to the rodeo life, one unintelligible to outsiders, an intuition that never fades, even as the opportunity to demonstrate it does. Authentic and empathetic, The Rider is a decent bet for one of the best films of the year that will be under-seen on release. Conor Smyth
The Rider is scheduled for release in the autumn.