There are things. There are people. There are things and people and almost incidental experiences that sort of just love you back to life no matter your circumstances and no matter your tragedy.
They do. They just do.
The Rider, nominated for an Independent Spirit Award for Best Picture in 2017, is a film about love and tragedy, grief and restoration set amidst the Lakota Sioux of the Pine Ridge Reservation. The film is a masterpiece, though I'm almost hesitant to call it one because it's mastery is devoid of the usual Hollywood conventions in favor of a deeply humanistic, achingly authentic cinematic presentation that is rarely captured on the big screen.
Writer/director Chloé Zhao accomplished similar greatness with her debut feature Songs my Brother Taught Me, a film shot on the same reservation and during which time she first encountered the non-actor who now has the lead in The Rider, Brady Jandreau, a real life bronc rider who experienced a devastating injury not far removed from that of his character here, Brady Blackburn.
The story in The Rider isn't so much based upon Jandreau's own life experiences as it is informed by them. The film is scripted, yet it's so infused with unfathomable naturalism that there are times you're not quite sure if you're watching a documentary or an autobiography. The truth is you're simply watching one of the best films of the year.
The Rider is a magnificent capturing of what it means to be masculine and what it means when that definition of masculinity is lost. The Rider is also a magnificent portrayal of what it means to keep fighting for that masculinity or at least some semblance of it.
When we first meet Brady Blackburn, he's alone in a darkened room passively trying to pick out surgical staples from his shaved head, a visible and tangible reminder of the devastating head injury incurred while doing the only thing he's ever really known he could do and do well - riding in a rodeo. Prior to the injury, Brady was a rising young star as a bronc rider and a horse trainer.
Now, it's entirely likely he'll never do either one again.
We like to pretend that our identity isn't tied into the stuff we have or the stuff we do, but the simple truth is that the "stuff" is pretty much the only thing that does define who we are. The Rider both begins and ends with dream sequences, a familiar Hollywood gimmick that isn't a gimmick here, in which riding horses becomes synonymous with cultural and personal identity. It becomes clear that this dream really is the dream for Brady and for other young men like him. It's a hyper-masculinity and even a precarious one, but it's not a toxic masculinity. There's nothing unhealthy about it other than the fact that living into it can kill you.
Lots of directors have used non-actors before, even in leading roles. It occasionally pays off wildly, though more often than not it's nothing more than an interesting experiment and cinematic failure.
I'm looking at you, Clint Eastwood.
By the end of The Rider, you won't be able to imagine anyone other than Brady Jandreau playing Brady Blackburn. Jandreau's performance is an instinctive one, performance yet a living and breathing one that never hits a false note. Refreshingly lacking in sentimentality, The Rider is nonetheless a poetic film immersed in western manhood identities and idyllic imagery. Alongside Jandreau, Zhao has cast his real life father and sister, Wayne and Lilly Jandreau. The fact that Zhao is able to compel equally masterful performances from both non-actors is once again masterful, Wayne Jandreau embodying the sort of "Man up!" culture in which Brady has been raised while Lilly, who has autism in real life, gives such a rich performance it may even challenge your own stereotypes about autism.
With her first film, Zhao was proclaimed to have been influenced by Malick. Indeed, the comparison still lives on yet The Rider makes it clear that Zhao has a unique vision all her own and is more than capable of bringing that vision to life. Zhao was born in Beijing, though she has spent the majority of her life here in the U.S. where her obvious embrace and understanding of indigenous culture that avoids condescension also avoids faux romanticism. Zhao understands these humans. For that matter, Zhao understands these horses in all their glorious abilities to be both impulsive destroyers and soulful healers.
Zhao is also a magnificent observer, though to say this can't possibly communicate just how sublimely she is able to bring her observations to the big screen in a way that makes sense within the context of the story. Rumor has it that one relatively brief scene in the film in which Brady tames a previously untamed horse came to be merely because Zhao had the good sense to recognize the magnificence when Brady, in real life and away from the set, did that very thing with similarly remarkable results.
That's it. That's really it. There isn't a false note to be found in The Rider because the best filmmakers trust their story and Zhao, unquestionably, has proven herself to be one of the best filmmakers working today.
This is never more clear than it is when Brady visits longtime friend Lane, played by Jandreau's real life friend Lane Scott. Scott is himself a non-verbal quadriplegic, a former bull rider until a similarly tragic accident who communicates through a sign language that Brady understands perfectly and patiently. Zhao magnificently trusts the silences between these two young men, refusing to bridge them with unnecessary words or actions or music or anything. The scenes between the two are stunning, both in their ability to portray them and in Zhao's ability to capture them.
There is so much perfection resting in The Rider that I find myself completely unable to forget about any moment within the film. Cinematographer James Joshua Richards lenses the film beautifully, framing Brady with a comfortable intimacy that lets us be both companion and observer to his changing world. Nathan Halpern's original music is sparse and solitary and achingly beautiful.
The Rider arrives in Indianapolis on May 18th at Landmark Keystone Art Cinema courtesy of Sony Classics, an indie arthouse distribution now following the film's festival and awards season acclaim. It's a magnificent film, damn near perfect and one that begs to be seen and one you will likely want to watch again and again.
Easily one of the best contemporary westerns in years and most certainly one of the best films of 2018, The Rider is a transformative experience that announces Zhao as one of this generation's finest filmmakers and authentic storytellers.
I can't wait to see The Rider again.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic