Cast: Brady Jandreau, Tim Jandreau, Lilly Jandreau, Cat Clifford, Terri Dawn Pourier, Lane Scott, Tanner Langdeau, James Calhoon, Derrick Janis
Director: Chloé Zhao
Running time: 1 hour 44 minutes
by Jericho Cerrona
There's something about certain areas of the American landscape which seem to attract those outside the country looking to find beauty in the most unlikeliest of places. Chinese filmmaker Chloé Zhao’s sophomore feature The Rider taps into this quickly disappearing pocket of the U.S. in a way which speaks directly to this fascination. In this case, its the area near South Dakota's Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, which was the setting of Zhao's previous film, 2015's Songs My Brother Taught Me. The director's interest in this material is genuine, and even though The Rider is an often beautiful film, it's also a depoliticized work which blurs fact and fiction in order to shield itself from the broader context regarding the fading myth of the American cowboy.
Real-life bronc rider Brady Jandreau plays a version of himself as Brady Blackburn, a local cowboy recovering from a traumatic head injury. His family, which includes real-life father Tim, and younger sister Lily (who has Asperger’s syndrome) are barely scraping by, compounded by the fact that Brady's dreams of riding stardom are seriously threatened by the fact that one more time on the horse could be his last. Meanwhile, the shadow of Brady's paraplegic friend, Lane Scott (also playing a version of himself) hangs over the proceedings. In real life, the charismatic Scott was injured in a 2013 car crash, and Zhao cannily uses old footage of the former bull-riding star to reinforce the inherent tragedy of the situation.
Though The Rider utilizes a docu-drama approach, the story itself is rather pedestrian; playing more like a typical TV drama than the impressionistic mood piece style would initially suggest. The logical outcome of the narrative seems to be Will Brady retire his dreams, or get back on the literal and metaphorical horse, and where the film eventually goes isn't entirely novel, either. However, what does work is the presence of Jandreau, who is essentially playing out a slightly tweaked version of his actual life, and his scenes opposite his sister and adrenaline-junkie cowboy friends crackle with naturalism. Zhao also demystifies the allure of America's heartland; adding layers of disillusionment and hopelessness along with the visual acknowledgement of the physical abuse such a lifestyle entails.
At times, The Rider breaks from the documentary approach to allow moments of lyricism and cinematic grandeur. While sequences of Brady riding along a meadow at sunset are undeniably gorgeous, the use of soaring music and slow motion also draw attention to the hybrid approach, thus lessening the emotional impact. The film's best moments, like an extended scene of Brady training an unruly horse, are observed simply and unremarkably; giving rise to the notion that watching someone with a tremendous talent do what they do best is its own reward.
Comparisons to Darren Aronofsky's The Wrestler are apt here, but unlike that film, which seem to revel in its depiction of the human body's deterioration, Zhao sees no such heroism in the act of self-flagellation. Instead, Brady is a young man cut off from the rest of the world; sullen, brooding, but inexorably tied to caring for his family and his love for the rodeo. If this world of hyper-macho men risking life and limb seems superficially hollow, The Rider wisely observes these people without judgement and generates empathy for a cultural milieu usually reserved for mockery. If it had examined the region's history of colonialism and moved away from its more typical story elements, Zhao's well-meaning picture could have harnessed sociopolitical power. As it stands, The Rider is an occasionally affecting story of a young man who sees no other option apart from his passions; with director and star finding uncharacteristic beauty in deconstructing the myth of the rugged American cowboy.