A film review by Craig J. Koban August 16, 2018

RANK:  #9


2018, R, 105 mins.


Brady Jandreau as Brady Blackburn  /  Tim Jandreau as Wayne Blackburn  /  Lilly Jandreau as Lilly Blackburn  /  Cat Clifford as Cat Clifford  /  Terri Dawn Pourier as Terri Dawn Pourier  /  Lane Scott as Lane Scott  /  Tanner Langdeau as Tanner Langdeau  /  James Calhoon as James Calhoon  /  Derrick Janis as Victor Chasinghawk

Written and directed by Chloé Zhao




I've seen so many countless permutations of the western genre over the years that I've frankly lost count, but THE RIDER is in a whole other ultra rare breed altogether.  

Just how ultra rare, you may ask? 

It's a genre busting effort featuring indigenous cowboys from reservations starring non-actors playing semi-fictionalized versions of themselves who are all directed by a female Chinese filmmaker.  

Let that settle in for a bit.  

By her own admission, director Chloe Zhao has seen roughly three westerns in her entire life before ever working in the cinema, which places her in a highly unique place for THE RIDER, which is a enrapturing and magnificently naturalistic western that never once feels like it falls victim to the usual pratfalls and conventions of the genre.  Very few westerns that I've watched have felt so effortlessly authentic and evocative of their time and place as much as this one.  That, and it shows an all but avoided angle in the traditional "cowboys and Indians" arc that has permeated westerns since their inception, which makes it so thoroughly refreshing. 

I stated earlier that THE RIDER stars non actors, which may elicit uneasy feelings for many going in, especially coming after Clint Eastwood's THE 15:17 TO PARIS from earlier this year, a deeply flawed and failed attempt to use real people to play themselves recreating pivotal moments in their lives.  THE RIDER, much like that film, follows a similar path of creative execution, but the end results could not be any more different and dramatically robust.  Zhao takes things several steps more successfully forward than what Eastwood pitifully attempted in the sense that she uses actual people that she knows on a personal level as her source of inspiration, in THE RIDER's case Brady Jandreau, a real life wrangler and rodeo star from South Dakota that plays a semi-factual, semi-fictionalized version of himself in the film, with his actual family members Tim (father) and Lilly (sister) playing his on-screen father and sister.  Under different directorial hands THE RIDER could have been - like THE 15:17 TO PARIS - a total disaster, but what emerges is a western drama of searing realism that feels, more or less, like we're a fly on the wall witness to a documentary of these peoples' lives.  The movie is so fact-based that it could as well have been a documentary, but Zhao's audacious technique blends multiple disciplines in what can be easily labeled as a masterpiece of economical filmmaking.  The stripped down aesthetic and tone of THE RIDER makes it feel all the more grounded and believable.   



That, and Brady Jandreau - despite having no formal acting training - gives such a soulfully melancholic and lived in performance that you'd swear that he's been an actor for years with THE RIDER serving as his break-out vehicle.  In many respects, he radiates a sense of rugged frontier toughness of spirit and raw charisma that classic movie cowboys of old certainly possessed, but he also manages to make his character one of deep vulnerabilities that allows for him to be more three dimensional and realized.  He doesn't so much play a character as much as he just flawlessly inhabits him here.  And, no doubts, his near tragic personal history helped him: In 2016 while performing in a rodeo a bronco kicked a three inch laceration into his skull, leaving the young man convulsing and going into a coma.  He was ordered to be restricted to a bed ridden recovery process for months to allow the plates in his head to fuse properly, but the stubborn cowboy in him propelled him back onto a horse two weeks in.  When we see Jandreau introduced in THE RIDER we witness him looking into a mirror and inspecting a horrific stapled scar on his head.  It's not a makeup appliance.  It's the real deal, showing the nightmarishly large wound he actually received from his accident.  It doesn't get more method than this. 

Jandreau plays Brady Blackburn, a 20-year-old bronco busting cowboy with aspirations of making it big in his profession, but - much like his real life doppelganger - he suffers a massive career setback when he's forced to recuperate from a near fatal head injury.  The main thrust of THE RIDER's plot follows this modern day wrangler trying to pick up the pieces of his fractured life and make some sense of it to move on.  His injuries should have killed him, and he will most likely always suffer from some form of dizziness and weakness for the remainder of his days.  The film chronicles the arduous and monotonous grind of his daily life, struggling to acclimate back home with his family as well as sheepishly taking menial jobs at a local grocery store just to make ends meet.  However, the call of the rodeo and cowboy life constantly beckons him, leaving him desperate to return to it even when common sense tells him it could mean a death sentence. 

Tensions really begin to mount up on the home front, especially when his father sells his son's prized horse in order to pay the bills, which is an essential requirement when Brady's rodeo earnings start to run dry.  Brady finds very little solace at home, which is why he usually confides in some meaningful time with his BFF in Lane (Lane Scott, playing a version of himself), another bull rider that was devastatingly left paralyzed by a car accident that has left him a wheelchair prone vegetable.  The scenes between Brady and Lane are some of the film's most sad and touching, seeing as they're between two young men that share the commonality of being badly injured and having their lives being put on hold because of it.  Granted, it's not all over for Brady, seeing as Lane - who has to spell out words with his hands - tells him to never give up on his dreams.  Brady finds new purpose in training local wild horses, mostly because he has arguably the greatest bond with these animals and because they perhaps serve as a conduit to get him back into the rodeo. 

This brings me to one sequence that's both astounding to behold, yet lovely and simple in execution.  It's all about Brady breaking a horse.  Now, that sounds pretty basic and not really out of the ordinary for a western film, but Zhao does something magnificent here: She and cinematographer Joshua James Richards shot two forty minute takes of Jandreau breaking and taming this wild horse for real, eventually trimming it down to a couple of minutes of actual screen time.  We get the just of the whole process and see Jandreau eventually weaken the animal's defenses until it lets him get close, jump up on his back, and eventually ride him.  It's one of the most quietly exhilarating moments of any recent film I've seen.  The visual poetry of THE RIDER extends beyond bravura scenes like that, like one marvelous take showing the physically and mentally damaged Brady proudly on his horse, galloping at full speed with a sumptuous sunset glowing behind them.  The film's sense of mood and texture is unmistakable: It takes us into the fragile mindsets of its characters, who are plagued with nagging uncertainties and anxieties, but it's also a stupendously realized western on a purely visual level, and Richards paints vistas of astonishing grandeur at times. 

The emotional epicenter of THE RIDER, though, resides with its characters and themes, the former being members of the Lakota Sioux, and it's decidedly rare is it to get a western that squarely focuses on the trials and tribulations of reservation life.  Zhao is not just looking to paint a portrait of reservation existence, but also of a proud people on the lower extremes of the economic scale that are driven to making tough choices just to stay afloat and alive.  I don't think that THE RIDER is exploitative of their suffering, nor is it using Jandreau and his injuries in a sensationalistic manner.  Zhao was friends with the star before and after his accident, so cheaply using his suffering is not her motive here.  Instead, she just presents these people and their problems without judging them, allowing for the audience to walk a fleeting moment in their shoes.  And when we see Jandreau interact with his real hard nosed father and Asperger Syndrome afflicted sister in the film we get, for the first time in a western in an awfully long time, the sense that we're watching flawed and damaged everyday people and not just archetypal characters propped up on a pillar of easy hero worship. 

I love this film's novel spin on overused and stale western formulas.  Ultimately, THE RIDER takes a sobering and heartfelt look at what being a cowboy in today's world is like from the prerogative of people that rarely get their voices heard or felt in these types of films.  It's also a tragically depressing film in the sense that it's about a young man that was seemingly placed on this earth to do one thing, but because of circumstances and cruel fate, he's unable to do what he's best at.  The dreamlike imagery of Brady on horseback harkens to some of the most quintessential iconography of the western, but here it reminds us that such a glamorized life is also one of potentially life altering perils.  As a neo-Western that serves to reinvent Old West mythology and create an engrossing vision of Native American culture, THE RIDER has triumphantly emerged as one of 2018's best films.  And it establishes Zhao as a passionate director to be on the look out for. 

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