Review: The Rider (2017)


Chloé Zhao’s The Rider is a remarkable western that bridges the gap between documentary and drama in ways few films are ever able to manage. In some respects, it’s a radical experiment, using non-professional actors to tell a story that essentially recreates elements of their own biographies. In other respects, it’s the latest in a long line of great westerns like Shane and The Searchers that explore the self-determination of the American cowboy and the freedom of the West. Regardless of whether you define The Rider as an experimental docudrama or a classical dramatic western, the film is assuredly one of the great independent American films of recent years. Few films let you so clearly feel the beating heart of its heroes and experience the world they live in.

The Rider follows a Lakota cowboy, Brady Blackburn (Brady Jandreau), living in the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota. Brady recently suffered a serious skull fracture during a rodeo, when a horse stepped on his head. Doctors tell him to give up riding lest he suffer another injury and possibly die as a result. For Brady, the diagnosis is essentially a death sentence, as he feels most alive when he’s on a horse, whether riding a bucking bronco during rodeo or loping across the prairie at sunset.

In its depiction of a stoic man forced to give up the thing he loves, The Rider belongs in a long line of North American dramas including The Wrestler and even last year’s Canadian indie Hello Destroyer. However, unlike so many films depicting tragedy and poverty, The Rider never descends into pity. In fact, the honest humanity that Brady and the other characters display, especially his autistic sister, Lilly (Lilly Jandreau), and paralyzed best friend, Lane (Lane Scott), is so heartening that The Rider could easily be classified as an inspirational film sheerly for the virtue of its characters.

However, nothing about The Rider is simplistic. Aside from the wholehearted warmth the film radiates, nothing in the film is easy to parse, least of all the distinction between fiction and reality. For instance, what part of the film is about Brady the person and not Brady the character? His family in the film is played by his real family. His friends are played by his real friends. Like his character, Brady was a rodeo rider who was trampled by a horse and who had to get a metal plate in his skull. If he rides in a rodeo again, he may die, just as his character would if tragedy were to strike again—as it inevitably would.

The Rider is not entirely a slice-of-life portrait of Brady like some docudramas, although it comes close. Zhao depicts the minutiae of Brady’s daily life, but she also uses him as a symbol for a fading type of masculinity, which plays into the film’s role as a western. She’s not afraid to use symbolism in her storytelling—for instance, Brady has a side-effect from his brain injury which causes his hand to seize up, unable to let go of whatever he’s holding, just as Brady is incapable of letting go of his life as a rider. In a later moment, a wounded horse is a direct substitute for Brady; the horse’s injury a literal death sentence, much as Brady’s is an emotional one.

There are moments where Zhao’s reliance on convention brushes up against clumsiness, as when Brady literalizes fears to his father or best friend, openly stating how he doesn’t want to become his dad or how he could be paralyzed like his best friend if he got in the ring once again, but even in these moments, The Rider never spills over into the sort of hokum you might worry it would. And furthermore, there are simply too many scenes of tenderness and beauty and silent emotional insight that obliterate any reservations I have about the film.

Some of the best moments in The Rider quite obviously involve horses. Staying away from the rodeo ring, Brady decides to make some money by taming some wild bucks on neighbouring farms. We watch Brady coax an anxious horse to calmness and then to subservience over the course of several long takes. It’s impossible not to recognize Brady’s skill at horse taming and his gentleness with the animals. Something about him speaks directly to the soul of the animals. In a scene like this, the distinction between fiction and documentary is impossible to negotiate; if the horse is in fact an animal actor being coached from wildness to tameness, it sure doesn’t look like it.

However, it’s not like Brady the character nor the human being is one of those stoic men who’s only good with animals, not people. In an early scene with his friends bonding over a fire, you recognize the easiness and warmth he has around his fellow riders. There’s a good-hearted camaraderie to his relationships. In fact, the only anger he ever directs at others is towards his father, Wayne (Tim Jandreau), and a friend when he thinks he’s insulting his sister. This is not a violent hero like so many western heroes.

The other strongest moments in The Rider involve Brady’s best friend, the paralyzed former rodeo star, Lane Scott. Lane is confined to a wheelchair and unable to speak, the result of a past rodeo gone wrong. (In real life, a car accident paralyzed Lane—one instance of Zhao taking artistic liberty with reality—although he was in fact a rodeo star, as evidenced by all the YouTube videos of him riding.) In an early scene, Brady comes to watch over old videos with Lane. In a touching later scene, he helps physiotherapists move Lane to a mount that’s a makeshift rodeo bull, coaching Lane through some limited rodeo movements with the help of two pieces of rope. Brady and Lane’s unbridled joy in the scene, and the bond they share with each other through riding, is immensely moving.

In these scenes, Zhao’s unpitying eye is essential. Neither her direction nor script speak down the characters or their circumstances. She never focuses on the autism of Brady’s sister, Lilly, or Lane’s paralysis, or tries to spin some victim narrative out of the Indigenous identity or poverty of most of the main characters. The characters take these things as matter-of-fact aspects of life, so Zhao does too. This fundamental respect for the characters and their circumstances spills over into the gorgeous cinematography by Joshua James Richards, who films the characters’ faces with the same appreciation he shoots the South Dakota landscape. In the many close-ups of Brady staring out to the horizon or Lilly focusing on the task at hand or Lane trying to make eye contact with his best friend, the camera never judges them as anything but beautiful.

In its tenderness and single-minded focus, The Rider reminded me of The Wrestler, sans the few operatics that Aronofsky injects into that largely-realistic story. Like in Aronofsky’s big-hearted film, The Rider connects you to the characters on screen and lets you experience their pain and joy. It lets you bond with them much as Brady bonds with the horses he tames. In fact, the feeling it fills you with is similar to that of lying your cheek on a horse’s back and feeling the strength of its muscles and the steady beating of its heart. In essence, it lets you experience the beating heart of another living being. Regardless of whether its fact or fiction, the true power of that kind of experience is not soon forgotten.

9 out of 10

The Rider (2017, USA)

Written and directed by Chloé Zhao; starring Brady Jandreau, Tim Jandreau, Lilly Jandreau, Lane Scott, Cat Clifford.