Updated: Oct 15, 2018
Written and Directed by Chloé Zhao
Starring Brady Jandreau, Tim Jandreau, Lily Jandreau, Cat Clifford, Lane Scott,
BFI London Film Festival Review by Chris Olson
How do you get your balance back when you (literally) lose the grip of your life's reigns? This dilemma is at the core of Chloé Zhoa's The Rider. With autobiographical content and troubling themes of identity and purpose, this entry into the Journey thread of the 2017 BFI London Film Festival is a worthy exploration of what is means to adapt physically, mentally and emotionally when you fall off the horse.
Brady Jandreau plays Brady Blackburn, a recently damaged bull rider whose numerous staples in the side of his head attest to the brutal community he belongs to. Telling all the well wishers around him that he is just in a period of healing and that he will soon be back on the rodeo circuit, it becomes tragically obvious that Brady is at an impasse in his career and must come to terms with what that means.
Few other archetypes offer such easy discussion on masculinity than the cowboy, and Zhao is intelligent and sensitive in using her central character's fall from stardom to raise questions about the nature of "manning up", "gritting your teeth", and "getting back in the saddle". Several other riders share their knocks and blows over the years, and some comment on a cowboy's duty to ride through the pain. Brady for the majority of The Rider is reserved and polite to all those who enquire about his health and future, however, gaps in the armour (or denim) begin to widen and his bubbling rage seems poised to spill over. Sequences with his father (Tim Jandreau) are dealt with honestly and have enough angst to unsaddle the viewer when they argue about Brady's choices in life.
It's not all heavy going, though, and audiences will find significant moments of beauty and heart on the prairie. Brady training horses is magnificently cinematic and tense, and his fondness for the animals is touching, especially when he compares his own fate to that of a lame horse. Brady also spends time with Lane Scott, a fellow victim of the brutal reality of bull riding and brother figure. The kinship and affection they show each other is mesmerising. As are the wonderful moments Brady shares with his sister Lily - whose delightful rebelliousness and charming singing offer a much needed touch of lightness.
As with many heartland movies, there is a demand for the cinematographer to deliver, and Joshua James Richards does this effortlessly. Beautiful wide angles of the empty countryside are juxtaposed with frenetic energy and close up shots when it comes to the rodeo or horse training scenes. There is also a slight dullness to the grading which potentially reflects the loss of vigour from Brady's life force in his new status. Zhao also implements a steady pace which allows plenty of room for Brady to unfold introspectively for the viewer instead of galloping into any needlessly dramatic contrivances.
Expertly controlled and caringly delivered, The Rider is an absorbing human drama that manages to keep you gripped to your seat whilst everything around you bucks and jolts. Incredibly focused with a tour de force performance from Brady Jandreau.