Of all the rickety crutches that mediocre movies lean on, one of my least favorites is when a character expresses their cosmic ambivalence by gazing meaningfully into the empty distance. Like any trope, it can be used well—think Luke Skywalker contemplating the stars in A New Hope, or the way that Terrence Malick contrasts those images with the elliptical poetry of the narration—but indie filmmakers tend to overuse it as an all-purpose, fill-in-the-blanks placeholder for details, nuances and character development.
In Chloé Zhao’s The Rider, the slightest twinge of emotional conflict sends the lead character outside to stare blankly into the sunlight, the twilight, the moonlight or even the “friscalating dusklight,” to borrow a phrase from Eli Cash. To be fair, that dusklight friscalates over the forbiddingly beautiful badlands of South Dakota, which Zhao shoots to occasionally stunning effect. However, those empty stares are almost too apt for a film with an offscreen story that is so much more interesting than the actual movie.
Former rising star on the rodeo circuit Brady Jandreau stars as Brady Blackburn, a former rising star on the rodeo circuit, but currently recovering from a horrible accident that left him with a metal plate in his head. Almost everyone in the film plays a version of themselves, including Brady’s irresponsible father (Tim Jandreau), his developmentally disabled sister (Lilly Jandreau) and his fellow cowboy friends, and many of the story beats echo incidents from Brady Jandreau’s real life.
Like his character, Brady grew up on a Lakota reservation in South Dakota, started cowboying as soon as he could walk, and suffered a near-fatal rodeo fall (we see footage of his accident in the film). Whatever the performances in The Rider lack in depth and detail, they make up for with authenticity. Jandreau’s skill with horses allows Zhao to stick her protagonist at the center of some stunning sequences, such as the scene where Brady methodically yet tenderly trains a wild pony.
Whenever the film feels like a documentary, as in the sequence where Brady’s bull riding friends discuss their worst accidents (“By NFL standards, I should be dead,” says one young cowboy), The Rider hums along nicely. The movie never stops meandering, but the milieu feels authentic, and the performances offer a verisimilitude that no “real” actors could capture. We get a real sense of the danger and physical toll of the rodeo life, and we understand that Brady is equally obsessed with and trapped in this world.
It’s when the melodramatic storytelling kicks into gear that the film clanks and sputters to a stop. Squeezed by his father’s debt collectors, Brady is torn between his physical inability to ride and his lack of marketable job skills, feeling like a lame horse ready to be put down. Much clumsy foreshadowing and leaden symbolism later, The Rider finally lands at the expected feckless non-ending. Too bad Zhao spent more time contemplating the emptiness of the badlands than the emptiness of her script.