The Rider Review
Female directors and the western genre have rarely crossed paths over the course of cinema's history, with the terrain mostly dominated by men and their overt masculinity. In the past few years that has slowly begun to change with the release of films such as Lucrecia Martel’s Zama, Kelly Reinhardt’s Meek’s Cutoff and Valeksa Grisebach’s Western offering a fresh and much needed new perspective.
Chloe Zhao’s second feature, The Rider, is another film that can be added to that list. Her poetical journey across the Midwestern landscape is a docudrama that plays as part fact and part fiction, using a cast of non-professional actors to look at the lives of those working there today, bringing us closer to the world of the modern day cowboy.
Brady Jandreau plays a fictionalised version of himself as Brady Blackburn. In real life he was a young rodeo discovered by Zhao while on the set of her equally as strong debut Songs My Brother Taught Me. Brady stays with his gambling addict father Tim (Tim Jandreau) and autistic younger sister Lilly (Lilly Jandreau), living to train and ride horses.
It’s a tradition passed down from his father and deceased mother and for a young man with no education it’s one of only a few ways to make a living in South Dakota. We meet Brady while he is slowly recovering from being thrown off his horse during a recent rodeo, his head trampled on as a result, leaving him with a brutal scar and serious neural side effects.
Zhao’s naturalistic style will no doubt draw comparisons to Terrence Malick although we are taken into Brady’s worldview with far more clarity than many of Malick’s recent attempts at using this sort of loose, elegiac style. She captures the beauty of the Dakota landscape in all its breathtaking beauty, the wide open expanse looking as melancholic as it does mysterious and awe-inspiring.
Work options are sparse in a part of America where riding the rodeo offers a possible financial escape from the relative poverty many families are trapped in. Brady is struggling to recover after his brutal accident and unable to cope with being separated from his passion of training wild horses. His good friend Lane is a real-life reminder of how badly things could go wrong. Lane was once a young hotshot rodeo rider who could tame any bucking horse, but an horrific incident left him hospitalised with brain damage and can now barely move unaided.
Using Brady as the centrepiece of Zhao’s story has more to offer when he is engaged in dialogue with his family or friends. The moments where the camera focusses on his face doesn’t provide much insight as to what is going on behind his eyes, instead looking blank and emotionless where a trained actor could've teased out more. That said, Brady does really shine when in his element training and riding horses, the innate connection between man and beast both poetic and emotionally resonant.
The Rider highlights a way of life rarely seen in film today, the more traditional profile of a cowboy being a more fruitful point of storytelling for many filmmakers. Yet, Zhao once again brings her camera into corners of the country that have largely been forgotten and rarely thought about in the 21st century. Here she challenges the expectations of masculinity placed upon young men’s shoulders in a region frozen in time, where rites of passage for men can be as mentally damaging as the physical danger too many feel they have to endure.