CREDIT: Sony Pictures Classics

This review was originally published on News Cult in April 2018.

Starring: Brady Jandreau, Tim Jandreau, Lilly Jandreau, Cat Clifford, Lane Scott

Director: Chloé Zhao

Running Time: 105 Minutes

Rating: R for Mumbled Cowboy Profanity

Release Date: April 13, 2018 (Limited)

I’m not too familiar with the South Dakota rodeo scene, and I’m guessing that before she wrote and directed The Rider, Chloé Zhao wasn’t too familiar with it either. I make that assumption based on the fact that she grew up in China, a country that, as far as I know, is not noted for its rodeo culture. But if I had no idea about her background, I would have guessed that she in fact had grown up in the scene that her film portrays. The production notes recount how she immersed herself in the world of a group of Lakota cowboys, and that is clear from the results on screen. This is intimate, realist cinema, gently revealing profundity within a boy, his horses, and the land.

As Brady Blackburn, Lakota cowboy Brady Jandreau essentially plays himself: a rising rodeo star whose career is cut short, possibly permanently, by a fall that leaves him with a nasty head injury. (The entire cast basically themselves, in fact.) This makes his story more reflective than he ever intended his life to be, as he reckons with the consequences of not defining himself beyond anything other than a rodeo rider. If he is fundamentally a rider, but he cannot ride, then how can he even be? Many of the film’s shots are Jandreau looking off into the distance, as he delivers a perfectly fine example of face acting.

Where I think The Rider ultimately sets itself apart is its treatment of economic reality. Because Brady must give up the rodeo, he is forced to take a job as a grocery store stock boy. But this is not, as one might expect, cause for humiliation or depression. Ultimately the message of the film, at least as Brady is concerned, is: don’t give up. Any setback is an opportunity for him to keep his head up. Foolhardy though he may be, every decision he makes is so that he can get closer to getting back on the horse. When horses suffer an injury as debilitating as Brady’s, they are put to death out of mercy. Brady’s single-mindedness almost makes you wonder if that should also be an option for humans. But it is also inspiring to behold someone so sure about himself. Mostly, it is heartening to see someone’s story treated with such thorough, deep respect.

The Rider is Recommended If You Like: Realist cinema

Grade: 3.5 out of 5 Ten Gallon Hats