The following is a review of Sony Pictures Classics’ The Rider — Directed by Chloe Zhao.
You may not be surprised to learn that, to my knowledge, the competitive sport of rodeo is not really a popular activity in coldish Scandinavia. Although it may have had its roots elsewhere (I, honestly, have no idea), I have always associated rodeo with America and the cultural fascination with thrill-seeking cowboys.
I don’t mean that association to be disrespectful or offensive. I, honestly, have nothing against rodeo. I remember once watching some rodeo competition late at night on some sports channel when I couldn’t sleep. I enjoyed it somewhat, but it didn’t really appeal to me all that much. This film did get to me, though.
Chloe Zhao’s The Rider is a film about a young rodeo star (played by Brady Jandreau), who suffers from brain damage after a violent rodeo accident. The film follows him as he struggles to find a new direction for his life, while he exists in an environment filled with characters that live and breathe for the dream that our protagonist struggles to leave behind.
Though certainly not a documentary, the film is inhabited by actors that are, essentially, playing versions of themselves. These are not trained actors. The main character is playing a version of himself, the same can be said of his father and his sister, the latter of which suffers from autism.
We also see Brady visit a friend of his — Lane Scott — who is suffering from severe brain damage. Like with the sister, Lane is not an actor playing a character affected by this condition — Lane, the actor and character, is actually affected by it. This obviously makes it all feel very authentic, but it isn’t without its own share of problems.
Though it certainly is an effective understated western drama, I felt that it needed a stronger performance to anchor the central story and make the deliberately paced narrative more bearable. The Rider doesn’t immediately grab you, it only slowly takes ahold of you — and I suspect many won’t let the film have the full runtime to let it wow them.
There is a moment in Chloe Zhao’s film when the main character walks back into his preferred environment complete with cowboy hat-wearing young men and a rodeo show. As Brady walks in, you hear this country song playing in the background. It is somewhat hip, I guess, in the way country music can be hip.
Anyway, in this moment, the film hits us over the head with its central message. The song has a clearly stated line that goes “if it’s all that I know, what else can I do?” That is the movie in a nutshell. Generally, I did have a bit of an issue with the unsubtle and outspoken symbolism in this film. However, I really do think this is a great film, even though it hits on some of the same themes as Darren Aronofsky’s much superior The Wrestler.
Zhao highlights a thematically rich story complete with even richer and gorgeous landscapes, and she gives us an effective film about the hauntingly attractive magnetism of the well-trod but tragic road back to the dream that may end you. The film is fueled by the characters’ willingness and foolishness to trade the potential disabilities that may go hand in hand with the risky rodeo circuit for one more chance at a hopeless dream.
The Rider is dripping with the sense that you are destined to walk in the tragic footprints of those you once looked up to. It dares to ask a difficult question: how do you teach yourself to let go of the hopeless dream that you’ve always been chasing, when you have no sense of direction?
Though I would say that Chloe Zhao’s The Rider has its own issues with pacing, performance, and dialogue, it also has moments of clear and shining brilliance that managed to wash away many of the problems that I had had with the film up until those moments. Some of the training sequences with the horses have this certain je ne sais quoi that I found to be particularly impressive — you can feel the bond between a man and his horse, and the symbolic nature of their codependence is expressed really well.
Zhao’s The Rider is, quite simply, a confident and effective rodeo version of Aronofsky’s The Wrestler. It is filled with haunting sounds of a horse neighing, as well as the vast, open fields that somehow promise much more than a modern Western society such as the one highlighted here can give to its wounded dreamers.
8 out of 10
– Jeffrey Rex Bertelsen