I remember going to a rodeo as a kid. I only think I went about 2-3 times, but I distinctly remember the feel of it all. The hometown heroes, rooting for your neighbors and just being part of a very specific community. There’s rare an event that captures a sense of community like a rodeo. Local legends are born in these events. And that’s what writer/director Chloé Zhao captures so intimately in The Rider, a portrait of what it is to live your life doing what you love, and then to have that taken away from you.
The Rider follows young cowboy Brady Blackburn (Brady Jandreau), a local rodeo champion who suffers a near fatal head injury and must figure out his identity upon the news that he can’t ride and compete anymore. I doubt I’m the first to make this comparison, but Zhao’s film is reminiscent of Darren Aronofsky’s The Wrestler in how it authentically portrays a specific type of lifestyle and circumstance, and revolves around doing what brings you purpose even if it’s detrimental to your livelihood.
Chloé Zhao quickly displays she’s the real deal, creating a work that will be regarded as a masterpiece of the New Americana movement. Her film holds to many of the New Americana identifiers – it’s about people who have to work for a living, about lower class dreams and the crushing effects of poverty, and she uses non-actors to tell her story. The fact that she uses non-actors could have backfired explosively, but it works spectacularly for this film. Zhao essentially has her actors play themselves and tell their own life stories. Brady Jandreau is actually a horse trainer and rodeo star who actually had a near fatal head injury to recover from. Lane Scott is an actual rodeo prodigy who had a tragic accident leaving him paralyzed and unable to speak. There’s a natural screen presence in Brady Jandreau as he tells us his story, the film doesn’t suffer from not having trained actors in it, it actually excels because of it. You’re always witnessing honesty and authenticity from these people, and it goes a long way in enveloping you in the time and space of the story. You’re watching these people just do what they do to get by. When you’re watching Brady train horses, you’re actually watching him do his job. A lot of films strive for the level of authenticity The Rider achieves, Zhao’s film is truly a stunning achievement.
The cinematography by Joshua James Richards is just gorgeous. The images he and Zhao concoct just had my jaw dropping at points. For instance, there is one shot where 4 men sit around a campfire with the moon above them in the background, and I just wondered how in the hell they shot that. Or there will be wide shots of Brady standing against the vast openness of wildlife with the clouds storming and rolling above him, and it just takes your breath away. Richards just effortlessly captures natural lighting to display the natural beauty of the region, seemingly shooting every other scene in the setting sun to make it look dreamy and like a painting. You just wonder how in the hell they captured some of these images.
I’m kicking myself for not catching this film at Sundance this year. I was not familiar with Chloé Zhao before this film, but I’m now intent on watching everything she’s done. Luckily, her first film Songs My Brothers Taught Me is on Netflix, so I’ll be watching that in the next few days. She’s a real talent that I can’t wait to see more from, The Rider is one of the most affecting works I’ll see this year. I found myself getting quite emotional during the film’s climax involving purpose and family. Zhao meditates on the nature of purpose and the crushing effects of reality so poetically. At one point Brady monologues about how when a horse gets injured and can’t do what it’s meant to do, they get put down, but because he’s a human he has to keep on living. It’s an incredibly beautiful passage that captures what it’s like to have what you love doing no longer an option for you. Zhao has created a film that is an instant New Americana classic, and one that is definitely going to be one of my favorite films of the year.