Too bad director Chloé Zhao spent more time contemplating the emptiness of the badlands than the emptiness of her own script
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, 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, but those empty stares are almost too apt for a film with an offscreen story that is so much more interesting than the actual movie. Too bad Zhao spent more time contemplating the emptiness of the badlands than the emptiness of her own script.