Film Review – The Rider (2017)

The Old West – at least, the one we know from the westerns that proliferated in the 1950s and 60s – faded away a long time ago, and its passing was well-documented.  But its traditions and attitudes didn’t totally die and are brought to life by director Chloe Zhao in her Dakota-set drama, The Rider.

A much smaller offering than the likes of The Sisters Brothers and The Ballad Of Buster Scruggs, both hits on this year’s festival circuit, it documents the lives of rodeo riders, where those traditions live on – the horsemanship: breaking wild horses and, even more dangerously, bulls: the check shirts, the Stetsons and spurs: the male orientated society.  For the riders, this isn’t a job, it’s a way of life from cradle to grave and, for some, comes dangerously close to being an addiction.  Brady Blackburn (Brady Jandreau) knows nothing else, a life dominated by the horses he trains and then rides in the ring.  But all his glories are brought to an abrupt halt when he suffers a near fatal head injury and is told he can never ride again.  Yet he can give it up, easily or otherwise, even though his visits to lifelong friend Lane Scott (Lane Scott), now trapped inside a devastated body in an electric chair, shows what he could become.  It’s in his blood and he has to come to terms with his likely future and how to reconcile his hopes, ambitions and love.

The similarity between the names of the cast and their characters are no coincidence.  Based on Jandreau’s own story, this is, in some ways, close to being a drama documentary.  His dad plays his dad.  His sister, who has learning difficulties, plays herself, and Lane Scott portrays himself as well, communicating only through sign language.  There isn’t a single recognizable face, and very few professional actors on the screen, underlining the sense of truth and honesty that runs through the film.  Many of the rodeo riders are for real as well, forming a tight knit community, a closeness that goes with taking your life in your hands for eight seconds at a time.  And that camaraderie is another reason why Brady finds it hard to break away: it’s where he belongs and can be himself.

The Rider is a personal near-tragedy.  There comes a point in the film where Brady seems to have lost everything, including a horse he’s trained and loved, and it looks like he’ll die in the saddle.  Deliberately.  The tone is sad – not depressing – but, for all the decline of the rodeo rider’s way of life, its hardships and its extreme danger, the film doesn’t lack hope.  It recognizes that, for some, following their heart’s desire is the only option, even if it doesn’t work out and can bring nothing but personal catastrophe.

Despite its unassuming nature, this is a film that needs to be seen on the big screen.  Anything less risks the loss of something important and beautiful – the Dakota landscape, with its sculpted mountains, endless prairie and changing skies, all of which form the backdrop to Brady’s struggles and recovery.  For somebody who’s never acted before, Jandreau gives a great central performance – there are moments when you’d swear you’ve seen a flicker of the late Heath Ledger.  Neither he nor the film flinch from telling the truth of his situation or that of the mid-West, and they both continually echo each other.  It’s all wonderfully crafted and the latter stages will move you to tears. And it will most certainly leave you speechless.

Freda Cooper|[rating=4]

Drama|15|UK, 14 September (2018)| Altitude Releasing| Dir: Chloe Zhao| Brady Jandreau, Lane Scott, Tim Jandreau, Lilly Jandreau.