'The Rider': The sad ballad of a broken cowboy
The cowboys in “The Rider” strum minor chords around the campfires of their lives. They’re rodeo riders, and these young men share their pain and passion with mildly slurred speech that could be the product of a rural South Dakotan accent, a few beers or the many head injuries they’ve suffered. Maybe all of it.
Chloe Zhao’s extraordinary film focuses intently on one of the riders, Brady Blackburn, played by Brady Jandreau, a non-actor whose real-life experiences inspired this story, and whose real-life family members play the same roles on screen. In the opening scenes, Blackburn dreams of a horse shrouded in slow-motion darkness. He awakes, and center frame is the bandage on his head. He brews some coffee, swallows some prescription pills, smokes a joint and wraps his head with plastic so he can shower.
He sits on his couch, watching video highlights of himself on his phone - images of who he was, who he used to be, who he can’t be anymore. The crowds cheer. He pauses at the one, but eventually presses play. It doesn’t look like much at first, because it happened so quickly. He flew off the horse, it kicks away quickly, and Brady’s body lies inert. The animal stomped on his skull, fracturing it, prompting seizures and a coma, and now in that spot is a metal plate.
Brady, we learn, is only 22, but the rodeo and horses were his purpose, the stuff of his life’s commitment. He never bothered to get his diploma. His mother died young. His dad (Tim Jandreau) self-medicates with Coors Light and video poker at the local dive. His 15-year-old sister (Lilly Jandreau), her speech clipped by Asperger Syndrome, says succinctly to Brady, “Not gonna horse anymore.” A cross-section of the human condition can be found in the Blackburns’ double-wide, adjacent to a modest ranch where Brady and his dad break and train horses.
“The Rider” isn’t a groundbreaking story, but it’s thoughtful, profound, quiet and, foremost, authentic. Zhao’s approach to the material is the visual equivalent of Cormac McCarthy’s prose, which roots out truth among exquisite detail. Zhao and cinematographer Joshua James Richards use intimate close-ups of the cast and expansive wide shots of the scenery in pursuit of the same goal - finding character in these people and their grand, rugged surroundings, the big picture and the small picture, all in the same picture.
The movie’s most effective moments are plainspoken. In the sweet, tender exchanges between Brady and Lilly exists significant affection and layers of heartbreak. When Brady summons the courage to put his cowboy hat over his tender skull and work with horses again, against doctors’ orders, the imagery is majestic and captivating; in a scene almost entirely exempt of dialogue, Landreau tames a stubborn horse in real time.
Brady also visits his best friend, Lane (Lane Scott), in an assisted-living facility. Also a former rodeo star, Lane is hunched in a wheelchair, a feeding tube leading to his stomach, his body wracked by tremors. But he’s cognizant. Through shaky hands, he speaks in sign language to Brady, “How’s the head.” A moment later, a joke: “Rub some dirt on it,” he signs, and they laugh.
Although we don't learn exactly how Lane became so debilitated, it's the broad stroke that means the most - this might be Brady’s future, or worse, if he doesn't accept this fate. A constant tension hangs in the air as he struggles to redefine himself outside this roughneck sport and macho subculture - “ride through the pain” is the advice he and his friends took. But now, he’s fragile, and every jostle feels like a threat, especially around animals, which, at least from our point of view, can be unpredictable despite Brady’s considerable ability to connect and communicate with fillies and stallions.
“The Rider” is a Western unconcerned with any of the genre’s trappings or traditions. Every moment is thoroughly involving, poetic and committed to its core ideas and emotions. It’s a magnificent, eloquent and pure film, truth in motion.
MPAA rating: R for language and drug use
Cast: Brady Jandreau, Tim Jandreau, Lilly Jandreau
Director: Chloe Zhao
Run time: 104 minutes