Classic westerns may never go out of style, but sometimes it’s good to see a movie about a cowboy who’s a full-fledged human and not a type. They are rarely as authentic and relatable as the title character of the reality-based drama “The Rider,” Brady Blackburn.
Brady (flawlessly played by a nonprofessional actor, real-life rider Brady Jandreau) was a rising star on the rodeo circuit around his home on South Dakota’s Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. But then he was bucked to the dirt and hoofed in the head, and suddenly, in just his mid-20s, his career is over.
Brady’s beloved sport left him with a scar half the length of his skull above his right ear, a right hand that spasmodically clutches into a fist and no clear way to reconcile his old view of his future with his unexpectedly changed life. Another head injury likely would be fatal. He’s no longer the rugged hero he was.
Yet, as we see in a wonderfully crafted long camera take that follows Brady on a gallop with his favorite horse, Apollo, his life without rodeos would not be much life at all. It’s hard to scale down your fantasies when you didn’t complete high school and the best available local work is stocking the shelves and swabbing the floor at the drugstore and grocery. The film opens with Brady’s dream vision of a long-maned horse showing its power with proud stomping and snorting but no overwrought symbolism. It simply and directly shows us why Brady wants to cowboy up and get right back on the horse.
“The Rider” is far from a downer, but it is filled with honesty about life’s unrelenting challenges and the failure rate of best-case scenarios. Shot in wild and rugged landscapes, the film feels as if it is allowing us to spend time with people we otherwise might not have met.
The superb outdoor scenes were shot mostly in the magic hour before sunset, and there’s a soulful golden sheen to Brady, his family and his friends, too. The cast is stocked with local folks mostly playing lightly dramatized versions of themselves. Jandreau’s father, Tim, comfortably plays his grating but devoted dad. His 15-year-old sister, Lilly, a lovable spitfire with Asperger’s syndrome, comes across naturally, as well. Brady’s dear pal Lane Scott, sidelined from rodeo and developmentally disabled by an even worse injury, appears as himself. His smiling and sign language conversations with Brady when they get together at Lane’s rehabilitation center show how those simple, important visits support him and give him value.
“The Rider” is the second feature by Chinese-born, U.S.-based filmmaker Chloé Zhao, whose youth in Beijing and education in London and New York City made her fall in love with the underpopulated frontier West. Her previous film, “Songs My Brothers Taught Me,” was set in the same region around Pine Ridge, where, it’s plain, she feels utterly at home.
Small specifics in this film are wonderfully detailed and full of meaning, but rarely pay off in predictable “artistic” effects. For instance, Zhao knows why people there have guns, how they use them and how to make their presence on-screen meaningful without melodrama.
At 100 minutes, the film is spare on blunt character arcs and writerly dialogue but rich in its director’s confident vision. Making a completely satisfying film out of such modest materials is not easy. It’s certainly not to be missed.