Film Spotlight: Chloé Zhao’s “The Rider”

By Armando

Sony Pictures Classics

Written, produced and directed by Chloé Zhao, “The Rider” premiered at the Cannes Film Festival on May 20, 2017, where it won Art Cinema Award, the top prize at the festival’s Directors’ Fortnight, the same section where Zhao’s debut feature film “Songs My Brothers Taught Me” was screened and well-received a few years prior in 2015.

“The Rider” has since received near universal acclaim, had a successful run at Telluride and at Sundance this January, and received nominations at Independent Spirit Awards including best feature, director, editing and cinematography. The film is currently rated 97% on film review aggregator website Rotten Tomatoes, with the consensus praising “writer-director Chloé Zhao’s use of untrained actors to tell the movie’s fact-based tale.”

Drawing inspiration from its actors’ real life experiences, the docu-fiction tells the story of a young, Native-American cowboy and professional horse trainer Brady Blackburn (played by a real-life rider Brady Jandreau), his physical and emotional struggles after a near-fatal rodeo competition accident left him with steel plate in his head, his motivation to continue in spite of his doctor’s advice to never ride again, and his search for his new identity and meaning of his life.

The casting of Brady, a non-professional actor as the title character was clearly a risky undertaking. But it paid off: critics praised his portrayal of the character which closely mirror his own experiences, providing the film strong authenticity.

The director was so inspired by Brady’s story that she also cast his family in the film, including his real father and sister, Tim and Lilly respectively, playing fictional versions of themselves, as well as his friends including former bull rider Lane Scott who was paralyzed in a car accident in 2013.

With the film shot from Brady’s perspective as a fallen rodeo rider, we feel his struggles in life and emotional pain. But the film is still hopeful.

We see gruesome staples on his head early in the film but undeterred he kept going. In his small town where he is somewhat a celebrity, he is encouraged to follow his dreams. We root for him to make a comeback both as a rider and in life.

One of the film’s highlights was watching Brady train a horse. There we see him in his element, slowly building the trust of the horse. We understand their connection and we are optimistic of what may come after, however tragic it may be.

While trying to escape, the horse Apollo got trapped on a barbed wire fence with his leg badly cut that his father had to put the horse down. “I got hurt like Apollo did,” Brady says to his sister. “But I’m a person, so I got to live.”

“Through Brody’s journey, both on and off screen,” says director Zhao, “I hope to explore our culture of masculinity and to offer a more nuanced version of the classic American cowboy. I also want to offer an authentic portrait of the rough, honest and beautiful American heartland that I deeply love and respect.”

Distributed by Sony Pictures Classics, the film stars Brady Jandreau, Lilly Jandreau, Tim Jandreau, Lane Scott and Cat Clifford. “The Rider” is currently playing in select theaters throughout the US.