The Rider is the story of Brady Blackburn (Brady Jandreau in an autobiographical performance), a young man who has lived and breathed the rodeo his entire life. After a tragic accident in the arena sidelines Blackburn, he must put back together his life struggling with the realization that he may never again do the one thing he loves—ride. As Blackburn recovers slowly, he must weigh his passion against his responsibility to those he loves including an autistic sister, gambling father, and himself.
What works in The Rider is the raw expression of culture. Writer and director Chloé Zhao demonstrates extreme patience as she slowly reveals the turmoil that begets Blackburn. His whole life has been spent around and on top of horses. To suddenly strip him of that is numbing, and Zhao does exceptional work using long takes of intimate moments, filled often with silence and song, to give the audience palpable insight into how Blackburn processes his new life. For example, early into his recovery, Brady meets friends to carouse around a fire with guitar playing and conversation about the usual topics such as women and the best horse-riding experiences they’ve witnessed. It’s discourse that Brady has likely had innumerable times, but now his engagement is closer to automaton than human.
It also doesn’t help that nearly every one of Blackburn’s daily encounters challenges him to saddle up again. Zhao masterfully introduces with care the ways those dares manifest: a sardonic father who paints in negative absolutes; rivals who goad; friends who assume a comeback is all but certain and anything less signifies weakness; and a non-blood-brother who suffered a far worse fate than Brady losing the decision to choose. Compounding these pressures is a voice of reason in Lilly (Lilly Jandreau), kin who sees only joy and love in the world, determined to not let anyone else dictate her actions—a credo she tries to pass to her brother. In powerful moments of pure sisterly love, Lilly continually compels Brady to never return to the ring.
While The Rider offers a deep look into a sport and way of life not yet explored in film, those who are squeamish about serious injuries, or prefer plots that gallop rather than trot, may not enjoy the experience. The opening sequence includes Blackburn removing staples from his head. It only gets worse from there. Zhao also gives her film a lot of breathing room through long quiet moments that range from beautiful vistas of the sun setting in the west to Blackburn trying desperately to burn hours alone on his couch watching cartoons. The pacing is an exercise in letting the world slow down around you to feel something similar to Blackburn.
If you are an abashed movie geek (and let’s be fair, you are given your arrival at this site) you may be wondering what, if anything, should compel you to seek out this film. Well, as you may have noticed above, the up-and-coming director of The Rider has recently been tapped by Marvel to direct The Eternals, which will significantly grow their cinematic universe. Zhao clearly has an incredible eye for storytelling through the lens of a tortured protagonist. It is fascinating to watch The Rider, a super small budget independent film, with the knowledge that she will help shepherd in an expansion for the biggest movie genre current in existence. Much like What We Do in the Shadows portended the quirky rumor of Thor: Ragnarok from director Taika Wahtiti, The Rider possible teases an entirely different kind of Marvel movie that is intimate and deliberate—an exciting prospect as the studio continues to dabble in different genres, subverting expectations.
The Rider is a slow burn of a character study (again, a true one), and the realism Zhao pulls from real-life counterparts turned temporary thespians is astounding. The topic alone is fascinating, but even beyond that Zhao proves a master of developing quiet, purposeful narratives. While The Rider’s pace may bore some, it’s hard to ignore the fact that an auteur may be emerging.
Recommended if you enjoyed: The Wrestler, Stronger, The Florida Project
Final Grade: A-
Possible Academy Award Nominations:
- Best Original Screenplay