The Rider (2017) – dir. Chloe Zhao

I love making movies. My favorite joke about this is to say, “Yes, I’m a visually impaired filmmaker, but Beethoven has gone down as arguably the greatest filmmakers of all time, and he was deaf… and a dog.” Am I good at what I do? I don’t know. But the pieces I put together, be they competent or incoherent, are undoubtedly mine. No matter how I feel about the work later, nothing shakes the thrill of doing something I love, and that belongs to no one else. This is why I unironically love something as objectively muddled as The Room. Tommy Wiseau may not know what he’s doing, but he has a vision, and his film achieves something that so many artists wish they could. My only real fear in life is that I might not have the ability to keep pursuing what I’m passionate about.

What happens when that fear is realized? What happens when a person has nothing other than their calling in life, not even a high school education, and they have their dreams taken from them? This is what’s at the heart of The Rider, Chloe Zhao’s docudrama of a rodeo rider whose prospects are jeopardized after suffering a career-ending brain injury. Zhao tracks the aftermath of this incident, in the titular rider’s efforts to reconcile with his new limitations and seemingly non-existent future, perfectly articulating the loss, the hopelessness, and ultimately the perseverance at the heart of this story.

The Rider is a grounded film, but can feel surreal, almost entirely due to Zhao’s casting. This is, after all, a depiction based on the life of the film’s lead, Brady Jandreau–also named Brady in the film. Also playing themselves is his dad Tim (Wayne Jandreau), sister Lilly (Lilly Jandreau), and friend and fellow former rodeo rider Lane Scott (Lane Scott). Clint Eastwood attempts something similar in this year’s stunt-casted The 15:17 to Paris, but to no discernible effect. Because Zhao loves this family, and because she can draw genuine performances out of them, the film works. The Rider never feels like a reenactment. Instead, the film is so tangible that we’re invested in every tactile detail. This is clear as early as the opening moments of the film are given to Brady undoing the bandaging the area where a centipede of staples closes his wound, with Zhao pushing in on each detail. This is what ruins and saves Brady.

Brady’s circumstances are pretty brutal. Since he put all of his eggs into the riding basket so early, he doesn’t have many options. His very poor family are posted in the badlands of South Dakota, with boundless plains and possibility, none of which Brady can ever really reach. Joshua James Richards resists so much of the postcard cinematography that a lesser crew might capture, because the setting is mountainous and warm, but Richards and Zhao fix on Brady, who is confined. The film wants to cut out to the open, but that vast wilderness isn’t available to Brady. Riding is all he and his friends have–all they talk about, even. Brady doesn’t have a diploma, and only snags a grocery store job because an employment services agent knew and liked his mom. He even struggles to connect with his family; Tim is a womanizing drunk whose blunt assessment of Brady’s condition put the two at odds, and Lilly, on the autism spectrum, is adoring and present, but never really in the way Brady needs. Like most classic westerns, The Rider expends a lot of effort dressing down Brady and his aspirations to essentially be a cowboy. Brady will pick fights with his friends, whether they’re being friendly with Lilly, or whether they get into an impromptu wrestling match. Brady always goes too far, becomes too aggressive, as if to prove he’s alive, or that he has some semblance of control.

This persists until Brady decides to break horses again. His talent is reminiscent of John Grady Cole in Cormac McCarthy’s All the Pretty Horses. Brady is such a natural with horses. He’s even well known enough that a young kid is starstruck to see Brady stocking items at work, and asks when he’ll be back on the circuit. At one point, Brady resolves to purchase a horse, that Tim–whether as a demonstration of belief, or an apology for not being more sensitive to his son–buys for him. As the film progresses, Brady wills himself into riding again, even though he begins aggravating his injuries, and stoking minor seizures he’s experiencing in his hand that eventually spread throughout his whole body. The Rider is, in a lot of ways, about compromises, which are meant to be fair, but can never be wholly satisfying. So, when Brady tries to ease himself into doing what he loves, he’s told that there are thresholds he simply cannot cross without dying, which is absolutely crushing.

Throughout the film, Brady pays visits to his friend Lane Scott–once again, who is playing himself. Lane, like Brady, has been incapacitated from his aspirations of a rodeo star. By all accounts, Lane and Brady could both have been major players. Yet, they’re both sidelined. Of course, Lane is nonverbal and can’t even walk. He lives in a rehab facility. When Brady drops by, they watch stylish videography promoting Lane Scott–a devilishly handsome hotshot who is as brash and cocksure as a person can be. And though he can’t speak, communicating largely through strained facial expressions and minor motions, we still see some of that spark in him. Though riding is the very thing that puts Lane in the position he’s in, he loves reliving his glory days. And why wouldn’t he? Lane is a great rider. Probably better than Brady. All they both have are their memories of their time on bull or horseback. The moments between Brady and Lane are almost always the most emotionally wrenching–save for the film’s climax. Part of this is because we see just how much more damage Brady could do to himself, as well is how unfair these two kids have virtually nothing to look forward to. When they watch Lane’s old rides on Brady’s phone, Zhao’s almost purposefully reminding us how small or far away that part of Lane and Brady’s life is becoming. But they at least have each other.

The Rider is a solemn and often devastating work, one that never has to say much aloud to be deeply felt. Sure, so much can be said about the film’s reckoning with masculinity, about the American tradition of the previous generation often leaving things a little more complicated than they found them, or about being differently-abled in a world that isn’t built with that much in mind–though, the last point may be addressed by The Rider better than literally any other film ever. In many ways, The Rider is about the fear of abandonment, about feeling as though a first love is the only love a person will ever have, and that not having that means one is damaged and done for good. But The Rider is a frank look at what getting over looks like. Each day is challenging, and with every step forward comes the eager temptation to speed through the healing process, to bite off more than one can chew. Such moments are inevitable. Even a pro like Brady gets bucked off and bruised.

Rating – 9.1/10

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