Film Review: Chloé Zhao’s “The Rider”

By Armando Inquig

armando inquig

Sony Pictures Classics

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

Since its premiere, “The Rider” has garnered near-universal acclaim, enjoyed successful runs at both Telluride and Sundance in January, and secured nominations at the Independent Spirit Awards for best feature, director, editing, and cinematography. The film boasts a 97% rating on the film review aggregator website Rotten Tomatoes, with the consensus lauding “writer-director Chloé Zhao’s use of untrained actors to convey the movie’s fact-based story.”

Drawing inspiration from its actors’ real-life experiences, this docu-fiction chronicles the journey of a young Native-American cowboy and professional horse trainer, Brady Blackburn (portrayed by real-life rider Brady Jandreau). The story delves into his physical and emotional challenges after a devastating rodeo accident leaves him with a steel plate in his head, his perseverance despite medical advice to never ride again, and his quest for a new purpose in life.

Casting Brady, a non-professional actor in the lead role, was undoubtedly a gamble. Yet it proved fruitful: critics praised his portrayal, noting its reflection of his personal experiences and how it lent the film authenticity.

So moved by Brady’s story, Zhao also enlisted his family for the film. His real father and sister, Tim and Lilly, play fictionalized versions of themselves. The film also features his friends, including former bull rider Lane Scott, who was paralyzed in a car accident in 2013.

With the story told from Brady’s viewpoint as a sidelined rodeo rider, audiences sense his life’s trials and emotional turmoil. Yet, the film retains an undertone of hope.

Early in the film, we witness visible staples embedded in his skull. But Brady persists. In his hometown, where he’s somewhat a celebrity, he’s given encouragement to chase his dreams. Audiences root for his comeback in both his career and life.

One poignant moment shows Brady training a horse. Here, he’s truly in his element, gradually winning the horse’s trust. Their bond is evident, fostering viewer optimism, regardless of impending tragedies.

In a heartrending sequence, a horse named Apollo got caught in barbed wire, severely injuring his leg. This forces Brady’s father to euthanize him. Reflecting on this, Brady tells his sister, “I got hurt like Apollo did, but I’m a person, so I got to live.”

Director Zhao says in promoting the film: “Through Brady’s journey, both on and off screen, 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’s cast includes Brady Jandreau, Lilly Jandreau, Tim Jandreau, Lane Scott, and Cat Clifford. “The Rider” is now screening in select theaters across the US.