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The Rider is a remarkable achievement. The story of a rodeo rider facing a life and death decision, The Rider was directed by newcomer Chloe Zhao using actors who’ve never acted before as her stars. The family at the heart of The Rider is a rodeo and horse riding family first and actors a distant second. This gives The Rider an authentic quality that combines with Zhao’s beautiful visuals and design to create a remarkable film experience.
Brady Blackburn (Brady Jandreau) is a rodeo rider known for his guts and his remarkable way with a horse. However, having recently suffered massive head trauma from a ride gone wrong on a bucking bronco, Brady has been advised to give up riding all together. One more hit to the head, one more concussion could prove deadly. That said, Brady’s natural connection to horses, his preternatural ability to connect with and break a horse appears to be the only skill Brady has.
The question in the story of The Rider is how much Brady is willing to risk in order to maintain the only identity he’s ever had. It’s a very compelling question and Brady Jandreau is a remarkable avatar for that question. Jandreau is a natural, helped by the fact that he’s a real horse trainer and rodeo rider, fully at home in the South Dakota setting where his family lives and works with horses.
The natural, homey quality of the cast is sincere as Tim Jandreau and Lilly Jandrea, Brady’s real life father and sister contribute to the emotional connection we feel for Brady. Lilly Jandreau is a particular stand out who never appears to be acting, likely because in many scenes she’s just talking to her brother and happens to be in character. Chloe Zhao’s brilliant structuring of the story creates the space for this family to function as characters while using real life to underwrite the drama.
In interviews, Chloe Zhao has spoken at length about shooting in South Dakota and specifically capturing a number of scenes at Magic Hour, that time of the day just as the sun is going down. Indeed, the choice to capture so many scenes at this beautiful time of day contributes to the atmosphere of The Rider and lends something to the beauty and tragedy of the story being told. This is a lovely movie in both character and in scene setting.
It’s almost hard to believe that Brady Jandreau isn’t a well-trained actor. His performance in The Rider is pitch perfect with his face communicating more than his words ever could. Jandreau’s deep, sad eyes are arguably the best storytelling device in the movie. In many ways we have a conventional story with some obvious, blatant metaphors on display, especially in a moment of Brady having to put down a horse, but it’s all more meaningful and impactful because Jandreau is so incredibly raw and sympathetic.
There are many more remarkable things about The Rider including another pulled from reality character, Lane, played by Brady Jandreau’s real life best friend and former Bronco rider, Lane Scott. Scott suffered a devastating accident during a ride that left him paralyzed and unable to communicate outside of writing words in the air. Brady and Lane’s friendship is fraught with meaning in the story with the two sharing a deep bond but one fraught with meaning as Brady struggles with his desire to ride again and not end up paralyzed like Lane or worse.
The scenes between Brady and Lane are drawn from real life and like so much of The Rider, they have a documentary level realism. This is not a documentary however, despite the real life trappings. Chloe Zhao is making a movie, a deeply moving, beautiful and poetic movie about identity, family, masculinity and how we define ourselves to the world. We watch as Brady struggles for a new identity away from horses and we are called to think about who we are and what defines us.
That is art of the highest order, a work that not only moves you with its story but compels you to look inside of yourself. That is why The Rider is one of the best movies of 2018.