Entertainment » Movies

The Rider

by Greg Vellante
EDGE Media Network Contributor
Friday Apr 13, 2018
'The Rider'
'The Rider'  

Perhaps the most intriguing thing about "The Rider" is the soulful contemplations of its filmmaker, Chloé Zhao, who was born and raised in Beijing, yet seems perfectly tuned in to the atmospheric energies of the American heartland. She understands the photographic qualities of her shooting environments, yet is far more interested in the emotional intricacies of the characters within these vast landscapes.

Returning to the Badlands of South Dakota once more (her 2015 debut "Songs My Brother Taught Me" took place primarily on the state's Pine Ridge Indian Reservation), Zhao focuses her cinematic eye on the character of Brady Blackburn, a fictionalized recreation of its actor, Brady Jandreau, whom the filmmaker met on the set of her first film.

Brady, both the character and actor, suffered a devastating head injury after falling from a horse. "The Rider" recreates this incident's aftermath with poignant results, even bringing in Brady's real-life father Tim Jandreau and sister Lilly Jandreau to play his family in the film. As such, the work takes on a documentary-style overlap between narrative fiction and biographical mirroring - the best example of this process I've witnessed since Josh and Benny Safdie's strikingly authentic 2015 heroin drama "Heaven Knows What."

The result is an affecting, meditative film that slowly scrutinizes Brady's search for identity in a world where his truest passion (in the case of the film, rodeo riding) may no longer be feasible as a soul-satisfying pursuit. It's heartbreaking at times, like watching a painter become blind or a musician go deaf - Brady found his place in the world, then had it snatched away from him in an instant.

Much of the film digs into Brady's internal struggle to either reinvent himself or reenter the rodeo circuit and risk an even more life-shattering injury, or perhaps even death. Zhao gives us close-ups of Brady's rugged and rigid hands, crippled by nerve damage, and even more haunting close-ups of the longing in this cowboy's eyes as he searches for meaning in a universe that refuses to give him an easy answer.

Some of the film's most moving scenes involve Brady working with various horses, the duality of man and creature blending in ways that singe into one's psyche via delicate nuances and overwhelming authenticity. A tracking shot of Brady riding his horse against a painterly Midwest vista may just bring you to tears, both in the beauty of its cinematographic compositions and the one-of-a-kind emotional legitimacy that only Jandreau could bring to this role. There are moments in this film that I just haven't been able to shake off. There is an empathetic understanding at play here that is exactly what cinematic storytelling is all about.

The lingering affections that "The Rider" directs towards its setting and characters are admirably grand, but in ways that never once feel showy or strained. As candid as cinema can be, Zhao's film zeroes in on so many of its protagonist's inherent qualities and questions that ultimately exist in all of us. Who am I? Why am I here? Where am I going? The film may not answer these queries in any clear-cut manner, but Zhao carefully reminds us that we're all God's creatures, staring up at the sky, or in the mirror, or into the eyes of a loved one, demanding unobtainable resolutions to the same damn thing.

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