Chloé Zhao’s second feature The Rider tells the story of real-life rodeo rider Brady Jandreau who, after suffering a serious head injury, is warned by doctors never to ride a horse again. Set against the stunning backdrop of the South Dakotan parries the film takes visual influence from the Spaghetti Western. So much of the style, politics and mythology of American cinema is rooted in the cowboys of the old West, but Zhao’s film asks if the image has outlived the reality. After all, what use is a cowboy who can’t ride the rodeo?
This may sound like an obvious cliché for a Western-styled boy-and-his-horse film, but The Rider’s use of non-professional actors playing a version of their real selves brings a tenderness and authenticity to the story. Brady is joined by his father Tim and sister Lily in a cast made up of real residents of the Pine Ridge Reservation. While Brady’s portrayal of a talented young man faced with the prospect of giving up his dreams is restrained and nuanced, the true brilliance of his performance lies in his scenes with the horses. With long and unintrusive shots, Zhao lovingly captures Brady’s talent and intuition that’s on show as he breaks these horses. Watching him tame these animals is breathtaking because the beauty is real and true; not even the best method actor could capture this. This adds a real sense of loss to his situation, because he’s utterly in his element working with these horses but risks his life by continuing to do so.
The positive effect of casting ordinary people and not actors is most powerfully shown in the relationship between Brady and his friend and mentor Lane Scott. Lane, once a rising star of the rodeo circuit, is now heavily disabled and incapable of speech due to an accident. In Brady’s visits to Lane’s hospital ward, they watch old YouTube footage of Lane at his peak as a young and fearless cowboy competing with swagger. The contrast to Lane’s current state of disability is handled without self-pity or tragic grandstanding. Zhao instead focuses on the affection and closeness of their friendship, finding joy alongside their pain.
Though some moments of The Rider almost feel like a documentary, the film’s sense of light, style, landscape and mood create a visual poetry. Cinematographer Joshua James Richards (who also gorgeously shot God’s Own Country) evokes Terrence Malick by using natural light – often filmed at dusk – to capture the orange and yellow hues of stretching desert skies.
The Rider may not follow a conventional story structure or narrative, but by immersing herself in Brady’s world Zhao achieves a stunning level of intimacy that makes for a sensual and poignant portrayal of resilliance in the face of broken dreams.
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