The Rider (2017) ☆☆☆1/2 (3.5/4): The tale of a young rodeo cowboy

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“The Rider”, a small independent film which was recently shown at the Jeonju International Film Festival, is a quiet but mesmerizing work of haunting beauty and aching poetry. Calmly and closely looking into a plain young hero and how he struggles to keep going on with his life, the movie gives us a number of indelible moments to linger on our mind for a long time, and I was quite impressed by its humble but effortless mix of realism and lyricism. I observed the movie with considerable curiosity and empathy as coming to care a lot about its ordinary hero, and I was touched a lot by how he slowly comes to find a way to move onto whatever will be next in his life.

After opening with what its hero seems to dream during his sleep, the movie gradually presents the details of his life as he begins another day of uncertainty and frustration. Brady Blackburn (Brady Jandreau) is a rodeo cowboy living in the Pine Ridge Indian Preservation, South Dakota, and this Native American lad has been going through a recuperation period followed by his unfortunate accident during a recent rodeo competition. Due to his severe injury on the right side of his skull, he had an extensive surgery which implanted a metal plate on his skull, and there is a cringe-inducing moment when he removes the bandage on his head and then reveals a long scar still needed to be healed more.

He lives with his widower father Wayne (Tim Jandreau) and his sister Lilly (Lilly Jandreau). Frequently drunk, Wayne does not get along well with his son from time to time, and he is also not good at managing their difficult economic situation (we later come to learn that they are behind four months in paying the rent for their trailer house). In case of Lilly, she is evidently on autistic spectrum, so she often gets agitated, but she mostly feels fine and comfortable with her dear bother, who cares about her more than anyone else.

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Often watching the YouTube video clips of his rodeo play, Brady wishes to go back to riding bronco as soon as possible, but then he comes to realize that he may not be able to do that ever again. Although he looks completely recovered some time later, there is something wrong with his right hand, and, not so surprisingly, he is later told by a doctor that his brain is not wholly healed yet and he should not ride horse for his safety and health.

While quite frustrated about this situation, Brady is quite well aware of that things could have been far worse for him. At one point, he visits a close friend/colleague who has been a rehabilitation center since he became mute and paraplegic due to his rodeo accident, and there is a sad, poignant moment when they watch together a YouTube video clip showing Brady’s friend before his accident. In the video clip, his friend looks cheerful, confident, and charismatic as brimming with spirit, but now he can barely control his body while occasionally communicating via sign language.

Facing the possible end of his rodeo career, Brady tries to find another job for supporting his family, but there are not many options for him mainly due to his lack of any other professional skill. He eventually comes to get a menial job at a local supermarket and seems content with it, but he often comes across people recognizing him during his working hour, and that certainly makes him yearn for riding horse again.

As a matter of fact, it looks like there is a possible alternative for him. As a guy who has devoted his whole life to horses, he surely knows how to handle and tame wild horses, and his skill is demonstrated well by one extraordinary scene involved with a very touchy horse. As he patiently and carefully approaches to the horse, it becomes milder and tamer than before, and what he feels from this sensitive process is palpable thanks to the considerable verisimilitude generated from the documentary-like approach of the movie.

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“The Rider” is the second feature film by director/writer Chloé Zhao, a Chinese filmmaker who drew critics’ attention through her previous film “Song My Brothers Taught Me” (2015). I have not watched that movie yet, but it is quite clear from “The Rider” that she is indeed a talented filmmaker to watch. Filled with vivid, realistic atmosphere, the movie is an absorbing experience to say the least, and there are plenty of small nuances and details to be appreciated throughout the film. Thanks to cinematographer Joshua James Richards, who previously did a fabulous job in “God’s Own Country” (2017), there are several wonderful wide shots of natural beauty, and I especially like a somber but dramatic wide shot showing Brady and his father from the distance after their certain hard choice.

Zhao draws unadorned natural performance from her non-professional cast members, who ably project their real life into the movie to considerable degrees. Brady Jandreau, who was really a rodeo player in real life and actually had a serious rodeo accident not long after he met Zhao in 2015, is engaging to watch in his gentle, earnest acting. Tim Jandreau and Lilly Jandreau, who are indeed Jandreau’s father and sister in real life, are also fine in their supporting roles, and Lane Scott, who is really Jandreau’s close friend in real life, is unforgettable to say the least.

Overall, “The Rider”, which won the Art Cinema Award when it premiered in the Directors’ Fortnight section at the Cannes Film Festival early in last year, is commendable in many aspects, and I was glad to see this powerful film on the last day of the Jeonju Film Festival. 2018 is far from being over yet, but we already have a number of terrific movies including this one, and I am certainly looking forward to what we may get during the rest of this year.

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