Chloe Zhao’s The Rider is a film that begins with our lead character, Brady Blackburn, removing staples from his head. His days of riding in the rodeo circuit are no more, and, as he looks in the mirror, he contemplates on what he’s going to do from here. The person who portrays the title character is Brady Jandreau, a non-actor who was once a cowboy in the rodeo circuit but had to resign following a horrific head injury.
The Rider is not a documentary, but there’s never a moment where it feels like the viewer is watching something that has obviously been dramatized. Zhao’s minimalistic approach to a slice-of-life style of storytelling makes it seem as if the viewer is getting a firsthand glimpse at what makes the rodeo cowboys tick and what makes them want to get back on the saddle no matter what injuries they may have sustained.
It helps that Zhao took a risk by casting non-actors in each role. Although it isn’t always a well-received approach (just look at The 15:17 to Paris from earlier this year), Zhao is able to accomplish a daunting task by showcasing each character as exaggerated versions of himself or herself. Her script doesn’t call for each person to give a big speech or to spout out lines that seem like they were specifically written for key moments. There is no gigantic, overpowering score to manipulate the viewer’s emotions, nor does Zhao go for the obvious dramatic beats during key moments, such as when Brady has arguments with his dad or goes to visit a friend in the hospital. It all flows naturally, as if we’re getting an actual inside look at Brady’s real life and the people that surround him.
The Rider focuses on Brady’s life post-injury and how difficult it is to strive for something when the thing you love most is no longer an option. Back home, his father, with whom Brady lives, is constantly strapped for cash, but can’t help himself when it comes to frequenting bars and casinos. His younger sister, Lilly, has Asperger’s, and is just a few years shy from adulthood. There are subtle, humorous moments involving both the father and Brady trying to get Lilly to put on a bra that never strain for laughs or feel out of place with the rest of the film.
Both characters are played by Jandreau’s real-life father and sister, respectively. His friend, Lane Scott, was also once a rider who suffered a horrific accident and is on the slow path to recovery. The real Lane Scott did, in fact, also suffer a career-ending injury, but as one of the special features on the DVD points out, his injury came after a car accident. Even after discovering that little nugget of information, it doesn’t negate the fact that Scott delivers a heartbreaking performance.
Some may find the pacing of The Rider to be a bit off, but Zhao’s quiet examination into the not-so-glamorous lifestyle of the American cowboy cuts deep at the most unexpected moments. The gorgeous cinematography by Joshua James Richards captures the landscapes of South Dakota exquisitely. Each shot is like a breathtaking image of a place to which you want to escape and just be free from all the worries of the world.
The DVD for The Rider comes with a 2:39.1 Anamorphic Widescreen presentation of the film. Although the cinematography is gorgeous to behold, and the picture quality is solid for a DVD release, I wonder how much better it would look had the film been released to Blu-ray. Audio is presented in 5.1 Dolby Digital with English, English Audio-Description, and Spanish tracks, and there are plenty of different options for subtitles.
The special features on the DVD are sparse, but they do come with a 29-minute interview with Zhao, Jandreau, Richards, and film editor Alex O’Flinn that is monitored by Variety’s Peter Debruge, and it’s worthy of a watch if you want to know more about the making of the film. There is another six-minute interview that only has Jandreau, when he was at SXSW, and nine minutes worth of deleted scenes.
While The Rider does seem to pull from a formula, Zhao finds all the ways she can to make it feel fresh. Each actor is superb in his or her respective role, and there is never a moment in the film that rings false. It’s a beautifully shot, moving look at the life of an American cowboy without all the cliches in the way, and it’s also one of the year’s very best films.