The sophomore feature from Chinese writer-director Chloé Zhao (Songs My Brothers Taught Me), The Rider, is an impressive documentary-style drama film, whose soulfulness and elegance dazzle. Serving as a backdrop for this true story is the eroded arid region of South Dakota.
By employing non-professional actors, who actually play themselves in the film, Ms. Zhao manages to shape The Rider as an authentic emotional journey that is as much gripping as it is true to life. Brady Jandreau deserves credit for the formidable performance as Brady Blackburn, a Native American cowboy and local rodeo star who, after a severe accident, is forced to abandon what he likes the most: to ride and compete. As a consequence of a deep skull fracture, which caused brain damage, he struggles with motor difficulties in one hand and occasional seizures that will likely become worse if he doesn’t stop to ride completely. However, he barely can resist to that unbending impulse of riding a horse.
“…he only opens up a bit with his younger sister, a fifteen-year-old who has Asperger’s syndrome…”
His eyes reflect all the sadness and he only opens up a bit with his younger sister Lilly (Lilly Jandreau), a fifteen-year-old who has Asperger’s syndrome. He maintains a cold relationship with his father, Wayne (Tim Jandreau), an old-school horse expert and now a widower. Yet, despite Wayne’s drinking and gambling problems, we can tell there’s love between them. It’s just a matter of letting it out.
There’s not much to do in the vast fields and Ray, besides accepting a few minor jobs as a horse trainer, starts working as a cashier in a supermarket in order to adjust the financial needs of his family. When hanging out with friends – drinking, smoking weed, and singing a mix of pop and country songs – he forgets the troubles for a little while. However, it’s becoming extremely burdensome for him to cope with his situation. This is exacerbated by his regular visits to a medical facility to see a friend, Lane Scott, who got paralyzed and became speechless after a rodeo accident. Ray will learn important things from him, including never giving up on his dreams. But can he just stop, let it go, and move on?
There is an infinite sadness involving Zhao’s The Rider but also an immeasurable humanity. What happened to Ray truly broke my heart, maybe because I value a lot the things I like to do. This powerful, quiet, and confessed drama with shades of Western will give you much more than what you are expecting. It’s a treasure and already a favorite of mine in the contemporary drama genre.
The Rider (2018) Directed by Chloé Zhao. Written by Chloé Zhao. Starring Brady Jandreau, Tim Jandreau, Lilly Jandreau, Lane Scott.
9 out of 10 stars