With The Rider, writer-director Chloé Zhao blurs the line between fact and fiction, casting a real South Dakota cowboy family as themselves to give a deeply empathetic insight into this harsh way of life. Though this might seem a bit gimmicky, it ends up as anything but. Zhao’s direction is visually sublime – never blandly “realistic” – and she uses her non-professional cast to capture a rare emotional authenticity.
Brady Blackburn (Brady Jandreau) is a horse trainer and rodeo rider who we meet fresh out of the hospital after an accident left him with a brutal head injury. Advised not to ride, he instead dedicates himself to caring for his sister Lilly (Lilly Jandreau) and friend Lane Scott (Lane Scott), who was severely brain damaged while bull-riding. Brady’s compassion and kindness are immensely moving, even more so as he can’t seem to extend the same gifts to himself, and it’s absolutely not a performance you would guess was a first acting gig.
It’s a huge testament to Zhao that she gets this naturalistic and nuanced acting from her cast, which ingratiates the audience into this world immediately and effortlessly. You feel the wind on your back, and when Brady’s on horseback, you practically have the reins in your own hands.
A long sequence in which Brady tames and trains a stubborn colt over the course of a full day is movie magic of the purest kind. Jandreau’s gift with horses is simply beautiful to watch on its own even before the gently swooping camerawork and music is taken into account.
Even with the unflagging commitment to reality, Zhao is still here to tell a dramatically satisfying tale, and the slow build to the ending, as Brady lets sympathy and sentiment into his life, is wonderful. This tiny film is visionary and deeply touching.
CAST: Brady Jandreau, Tim Jandreau, Lilly Jandreau
DIRECTOR: Chloé Zhao
WRITER: Chloé Zhao
SYNOPSIS: After suffering a near-fatal head injury, a young cowboy undertakes a search for new identity and what it means to be a man in the heartland of America.