Cast of non-actors shines in intimate and ‘distinctively revelatory’ western
The Rider, the much-acclaimed film by Chloé Zhao, is both a wrenching experience and a heartening one. Key parts of its low-key brilliance come from mixtures of honesty, directness and intimacy that provide a plain-spoken sort of emotional depth.
The title character is Brady Blackburn, a young rodeo rider struggling to recover, physically and emotionally, from a severe and partially disabling injury suffered in rodeo action. Rodeo competition and horse training are at the core of his being, but the injury curtails his involvement in those activities, at least in part, and so he is faced with challenges to his own sense of purpose and self-worth.
What results, in the hands of Zhao and her nonprofessional cast, is rewarding and complex in a number of quietly surprising ways. Brady’s thorny personal questing and his attachment to a couple of aging horses are central elements of the story, but his relationships with his family and with various pals in rodeo and ranching frequently drift back into the heart of the action as well.
Zhao’s script is based on events in the life of Brady Jandreau, the real-life rodeo rider and horse trainer who plays “Brady Blackburn” in the film. Jandreau’s father, Tim, plays Blackburn’s dad (“Wayne” in the film), and his younger sister Lilly is sweetly unconventional as the title character’s sister.
A number of Jandreau’s friends and colleagues (Cat Clifford, Tanner Langdeau, James Calhoon, Terri Dawn Pourier, etc.) appear as themselves, as does Lane Scott, a fearsomely disabled rodeo rider whom Brady views as a “big brother” and role model. Scott’s scenes with Brady are right at the heart of the film’s clashes of spiritual heroism and physical tragedy.
Damaged bodies and resurgent souls seem to recur, but mainly in offhanded ways. Whatever its epiphanies, The Rider never preaches, never insists on big conclusions, foregone or otherwise. Zhao’s latter-day neo-realism (nonprofessional actors, use of actual locations, focus on everyday life, etc.) is very much in keeping with an approach to spiritual matters that values discovery over declamation.
In that spirit, The Rider might also be viewed as a distinctively revelatory kind of western movie. It’s set and filmed in Pine Ridge territory in South Dakota, and the Jandreau family and many of their rodeo friends have Oglala Sioux lineage. Plus the exhortation to “Cowboy up!” clearly means a lot to Brady and others close to him. Of course, the phrase has a special sting for him and his variously stricken friends, but it also continues to be a genuine rallying call, even if requiring constant reinterpretation.