By Mark Saldana
Rating: 4 (Out of 4 Stars)
Growing up in San Antonio, Texas, it was inevitable that I would attend rodeos that would come into town annually. As a child, one doesn’t always realize the high risks involved to be a rodeo rider, whether it is riding bulls or bucking broncos. As I grew up and became more aware of the human body’s limitations, it often startled me and amazed me what rodeo cowboys put their bodies through to compete in the sport, not to mention the fact that they risk their lives doing it on a regular basis. A new film by Chloé Zhao (Songs My Brothers Taught Me) offers an intimate portrait of a young rodeo horse rider and what he goes through when a career-ending injury brings his riding days to a grinding halt.
Brady Blackburn (Brady Jandreau) is finally home after surgery and recovery from a severe injury incurred as a rodeo bronco buster. Still in pain and feeling the effects of his injuries, Brady attempts to adjust to life away from his main passion. However, the time that follows feels like a hard uphill battle filled with frustrating and disappointing days that include a job he doesn’t really like, visiting a former rodeo buddy who suffered injuries far worse than his, and struggling with the fact that he may never, ever ride again.
Written and directed by Chloé Zhao, The Rider is a beautiful, poignant and powerful film about coping with a crushing injury and finding some strength and heart to persevere in life despite it. I know the film sounds like a downer, but it is actually sweet and sometimes endearing despite its melancholy moments. Zhao’s filmmaking takes her audience into the rather intimate and vulnerable moments of a man who was once the epitome of masculinity and fearlessness. She and cinematographer Joshua James Richards compose some sincerely exquisite and sublime shots of the landscape, countryside and scenery in South Dakota where the film takes place. Zhao and Richards also capture some genuinely haunting images of Brady as he goes through the inner turmoil of struggling with his condition.
It also very much impressed me that Zhao chose to work with non-professional actors for this film who are quite similar to her characters. She is able to capture some outstanding performances and scenes with Brady Jandreau who brings much heart and pathos to his lead role. Zhao also cast Brady’s father Wayne as his character’s father Tim and Brady’s sweet and adorable sister Lilly who brings her vibrant personality to the movie. Zhao captures the best of what these real people have to offer, which lends a beautiful and sometimes startling realism to the movie.
The film premiered last year at the Cannes Film Festival and won the Art Film Award. It went on to play at this year’s SXSW Film Festival. It is a movie that really touched my heart and introduced me to Chloé Zhao, a phenomenal filmmaker who is definitely on my radar now. For those looking for a very personal human story, I must highly recommend this wonderful and sometimes heartbreaking independent film.