Existing in a similar milieu to her feature debut Songs My Brothers Taught Me, Chloé Zhao’s The Rider is a delicate portrayal of an up-and-coming rodeo rider coming to terms with life-changing injuries caused by participating in his beloved competition.
In her second feature, Zhao expresses the essence of independent cinema in Italian neorealism by casting her lead and his family in roles that possess a great deal of verisimilitude to their real lives. Still, what rests beneath this authenticity of modern America is a tender tale of striving for one’s dreams, even amongst the harshest conditions imaginable.
After suffering a profound head injury, Brady Blackburn (Brady Jandreau) is bound to pain and boredom at home. The extent of the damage to his head stands out like a sore thumb in the huge surgical staples imprinted onto his skull. Instead of forcing the viewer into staged flashbacks of his former self successfully rodeoing, Zhao instead selects to cathartically allow Brady to view old videos on YouTube. Possessing great balance and strength, the young man’s skills are there for all to see. A benefit of casting Jandreau in the lead role, such videos are indeed real and thus take on new meaning as a consequence.
Still, whilst facing time away from making money through rodeo, Brady must support himself and his family by working in a supermarket, whilst training horses on the side. Forming the structure of the narrative, these two jobs imbue compassion in voyeuristically viewing someone who’s dreams appear to be at an end persevere. Nevertheless, beauty is unearthed in Brady’s telepathic connections with horses. Aided by Jandreau’s real-life experience with the animals, poignancy arrives in the form of the evocative nature of the moving image towards its subjects here.
Connecting the film to the present, even though adopting a Western setting that’s as old as American cinema itself, idealized notions of masculinity are placed to the forefront of its thematic discussion. Comparable to Claire Denis’ approach to gender in Beau Travail, Zhao’s observations dissect gender. Coexisting in same shared space as this approach to gender is universally story of aspiration – regardless of sex.
After working with Francis Lee on the riveting locations of the Yorkshire Moors in God’s Own Country, cinematographer Joshua James Richards captures the rural landscapes with flourish of Néstor Almendros’ work in Days of Heaven. Expansive in the natural landscapes and tight in the low-key lighting of Brady’s home, Richards’ widescreen ratio allows one to revel in the deeply evocative images on-screen.
Alongside the sumptuous visuals, Zhao’s deft hands in writing the screenplay repeatedly come to the forefront of The Rider’s collective success. Featuring his little sister Lilly (Lilly Jandreau), who has learning disabilities, and Brady’s best friend who sustained injuries so severe they have left him crippled in a wheelchair – these two characters never feel trite or placed to produce any artificial empathy. Likewise, the actors all interact with their fellow cast and surroundings in a manner which evidently comes from a deep-rooted place of genuine emotion.
Spiritually channelling Nicholas Ray’s The Lusty Men, both films exhibit two central performance that act as doorways into their worlds. Composed in low-angled close-ups, a repeated act by Richards, Brady shines in his natural habitat. Lengthening one’s attention towards Brady’s situation is Nathan Halpern’s subtle score that intertwines with diegetic sounds.
Dedicated to rodeo riders “who live their lives 8 seconds at a time”, The Rider speaks to a natural urge in humanity to aspire for more than we already have. Quietly breathtaking, although not flawless, Zhao is a true rising star with the skills evident to join the likes of Denis as a master filmmaker.