The Rider (2017)
Written & Directed by Chloé Zhao
Brady Blackburn was a rising star on the rodeo circuit until he suffers brain damage after being thrown from a bronco. He’s back home now, a metal plate in his head and bouts of nausea unsure of his future as a rider. In the meantime, his father and sister share a trailer with him struggling against poverty. Brady works through his pride and gets a job working at a local grocery store trying to keep the family afloat. However, always lingering in the back of his mind is this hunger to get back up on a horse again. He tests the waters by helping a couple of people break stallions they’ve recently purchased and feels the pull. Brady even saves up money and gets help from his dad to buy an Arabian named Apollo that he sees as a path to recovery and his future. But something inside Brady keeps telling him this dream may be over.
The Rider is a spectacular example of American neorealism, a style choice within cinema to cast non-actors, unglamorous modern settings, and to showcase stories of social immediacy. Other filmmakers working in this subgenre of film include Andrea Arnold (Fish Tank, American Honey) and the Safdie Brothers (Heaven Knows What, Good Time). Neorealism is typically seen in movies with urban settings, but in the United States, there has been a growing number depicting rural lifestyles. Winter’s Bone is considered by some to fall into the neorealist category. I feel The Rider to blend reality with cinema better than Winter’s Bone and is at the same level of what the Safides are producing.
Writer-Director Chloé Zhao was filming a movie about a Native American reservation when she met Brady Jandreau and heard his story. What happened to the Brady of the film is what occurred in Jandreau’s life, and she cast him in a role that was essentially himself. Brady’s real-life father and sister play both these roles in the film which makes their chemistry on screen feel fluid and natural. In an interview, Jandreau explains that he wasn’t playing himself per se, that when he would tell Zhao he wouldn’t react a certain way to a moment she reminded him that Brady the character would. In this way, The Rider is not a simple reenactment or docudrama. By casting individuals who live in this environment and having them act out a story that has emerged from their lives you have performances that could never be replicated by an actor brought in from outside the community. You could get a great performance out of that professional actor, but the tone and style of authenticity would be absent.
Zhao tells the story of male identity and the myth of the cowboy through this quiet passage in Brady’s life. His friends circle around him assuring the young man that he will make a comeback and be riding competitively again. There is constant encouragement from people around him, but it is Brady who harbors internal doubts. He begins experiencing small seizures that seize up one of his hands which he has to pry back open with the other. He’s not going to die from his injuries but he may well if he gets back up in the saddle again. His best friend Lane acts as a warning, played by Lane Scott another real-life rider who was injured so severely he was left partially paralyzed and incapable of speech. Scott’s performance is remarkable, able to convey a wide range of emotions despite the limits of physical capabilities. You can see joy, concern, sadness, every feeling imaginable pass across Scott’s face.
While I have never been a fan of the rodeo, nor a detractor, The Rider was able to get across the sense of freedom and exhilaration the riders feel both on a bucking bronco or simply riding across the hills. Zhao knows when to be silent and allow the camera to follow Brady and let us absorb the landscape and his experience in the moment. Brady’s hand seizes and clenches tightly to the reins, acting out that part of him that refuses to give up this one specific dream. Every time he uses his other hand to pry himself free and return to living his life. Brady’s particular story about losing his chance to ride again speaks to us all, anyone who has ever come to a crossroads where they must give up something they hold precious. He tells Lilly at one point, “If what had happened to me had happened to any animal around here they would have put them down. But I’m not an animal, I’m a man, and I have to keep living.”