The Rider review – impressive, stylish bronco rider drama bucks the trend

Chloé Zhao’s distinctive new feature shows life among South Dakota’s star bronco riders, who play themselves in a kind of heightened documentary

Chinese-born film-maker Chloé Zhao had her debut feature Songs My Brothers Taught Me in the Directors’ Fortnight at Cannes two years ago, and she returns to this sidebar with another absorbing indie-realist slice of Americana: a tale of cowboys, bull riders and bronco riders in South Dakota. It’s a sombre study of the risks they face and stoically accept, and could even be seen as a terrifying parable of the shortness of life. In many ways, The Rider feels like an expanded, loosened and more impressionistic version of something very much more overtly crafted by, say, Cormac McCarthy, Larry McMurtry or Annie Proulx.

Yet Zhao’s approach is different. This is a movie using non-professionals playing versions of themselves, and under Zhao’s patient, unintrusive directorial eye they appear to be inhabiting a kind of heightened documentary. Dialogue scenes and wordless sequences roll easily by, and there doesn’t seem to be an obvious narrative direction. And maybe the movie could have done with clipping 10 minutes or so from the running time, and with being edited to give it more conventional focus. Yet that would be to sacrifice something of its honesty, authenticity and flavour. You have to let it grow on you.

Brady Jandreau plays Brady, a bronco rider who is recovering from surgery following a head injury, sustained when his horse briefly fell on him. Like the smartphone video of this event that Brady is seen thoughtfully watching, and like almost everything in the film, this would appear to be autobiographical and accurate. Jandreau’s sister Lilly plays his character’s sister Lilly, an affectionate, likable teenager with learning difficulties, while his dad, Tim, plays his dad, Tim: a good ol’ boy with drinking issues and money difficulties, owing to a fondness for playing slots.

Brady is seen at the very beginning of the film, wince-inducingly picking the bandage off his head, raring to go, months before the hospital said it was in any way safe to even get on a horse, let alone go rodeo riding. And for all his impatience and learned machismo – his buddies are always telling him to “cowboy up” – he’s secretly scared. When out riding, he sometimes has to stop to throw up and suffers spasms in his right hand. And always on his mind is his buddy and fellow rodeo rider Lane Scott, who plays himself.

Lane is severely disabled after a fall. We see Brady visiting him in hospital, and together they watch videos of his great feats of daring and swagger before the great catastrophe. The juxtaposition of the young, sexy, confident Lane as he was, and Lane as he is now, is almost unbearably moving – all the more so because of the matter-of-fact way it is presented to us. There is no self-pity, no tragic grandstanding. All that matters is Brady’s great love for his friend, unselfishly and unselfconsciously presented.

As to what The Rider is about in narrative terms, that is ambiguous. Is Brady holding on to his dreams, refusing to let his injury beat him, and committed to getting back on the horse? Or is there a greater maturity and courage in looking for a different life-path? There is a great moment when Brady, while working in a supermarket, poses for a selfie with a young fan – again, with no conceit, no sense of himself as any sort of celebrity, but also with no sense that he might be encouraging someone down a dangerous path, at the end of which his youth might be cruelly snuffed out. What does he think is happening here?

No obvious answer is offered. But Brady is clearly a talented wrangler of horses and I loved the scenes in which he is shown doing just that: sequences that are there to show he has a viable career path outside of the rodeo, but also to show his profound contentment when on horseback. It’s a very impressive, very accomplished film.

Contributor

Peter Bradshaw

The GuardianTramp

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