Director: Chloe Zhao
Cast: Brady Jandreau, Lilly Jandreau, Tim Jandreau, Lane Scott, Cat Clifford, Terri Dawn Poirier
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Writer-director Chloe Zhao demonstrated her affinity for the docu-fiction format with her debut feature, Songs My Brothers Taught Me (2015), which centred on a group of Lakota Sioux siblings in the Pine Ridge region of South Dakota. Zhao’s new film finds her in the same territory, but this time detailing the story of real-life rodeo rider Brady Jandreau, who plays an only slightly fictionalised version of himself.
Jandreau plays 20 year old rodeo rider Brady Blackburn, who we first meet recovering from a horrific-looking injury in hospital, the result of being trampled by his own horse in the rodeo ring. With a metal plate in his skull, Brady’s informed by his doctor that his rodeo days – and indeed, his horse-riding days – are over, something that’s backed up by Brady’s frequent hand seizures and nausea. The rest of the film follows Brady as he comes to terms with his situation, and the attendant heartbreak of having everything you love ripped away from you.
Though The Rider works perfectly well if you’re not aware of the background, the story gains an extra level of poignancy when you realise that Brady’s story is essentially true – Zhao met Jandreau before his accident, and she developed the story with him in the aftermath of his real-life injury. That level of remarkable authenticity extends to the supporting cast – Brady’s real-life father, Tim, and his sister, Lilly, both play themselves, as does former rodeo star Lane Scott, Brady’s best friend, who’s had a far more serious rodeo accident that has left him severely paralysed. The emotion in Brady’s frequent hospital visits to Lane is extremely powerful, on several different levels, and, like the rest of the film, all the more effective for being understated.
It’s easy to imagine Brady’s story getting the full-on Hollywood treatment, with swelling strings, three-hankie speeches and the saccharine levels turned up to eleven. Thankfully, Zhao resists even the tiniest nod in that direction – instead, she coaxes a phenomenal performance from her non-professional lead (he’s a better actor than most actors) and allows all the emotion of the film to be conveyed through his almost imperceptible reactions, the cumulative effect of which is quietly devastating.
Thematically, there is plenty to chew on, from the subtle comments on American masculinity (his rodeo buddies keep telling him to “cowboy up” and ride through the pain) to the grim job prospects available in the mid-west (at one point, Brady takes a supermarket job, which leads to one of the film’s best scenes) and the symbolic parallel between Brady and his horse – he wryly remarks that when a horse can no longer work, it’s taken out and shot, but what happens when a rider can no longer ride?
It’s not all doom and gloom, and there’s a sequence where Brady tries his hand at horse-training that has strong echoes of young Billy Casper training his pet falcon in Kes. In addition, the film looks utterly gorgeous, courtesy of cinematographer Joshua James Richards, whose landscape-shooting skills were also on display in God’s Own Country.
Beautifully made and superbly acted, this is an exceptional, powerfully moving piece of work that will stay with you a long, long time. Someone at Marvel evidently agrees, as Zhao was hand-picked to helm the studio’s Eternals movie.