Film

The Rider

Home on the range

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Subtle, elemental and powerfully beautiful, writer-director Chloe Zhao’s The Rider is the Western of the new century, and the most enveloping film experience I’ve had this year.

Even a hack director could make something of the southwestern South Dakota landscapes near Wounded Knee, lined by the Badlands, and foregrounded by the people who live, work, ride and risk their lives there. But with this, the second feature written and directed by Beijing-born and American-educated Zhao, we have ample evidence of a filmmaker whose storytelling instincts combine the prose of documentary with the poetry of a cinematic natural.

The same can be said of the main character as portrayed, close to the bone and to his own experience, by a real-life Lakota cowboy named Brady Jandreau. Now 22, he is everything The Rider needs. He’s an authentic presence, with trace elements of Christian Bale and Heath Ledger around the eyes, utterly at home in every shot, whether it’s in the confines of a trailer or a hospital bed, in tight close-up, or outside under the sky, with the animals with whom he’s almost supernaturally in sync.

We first see Brady Blackburn, Jandreau’s lightly fictionalized version of himself, in bed, waking with a start after dreaming of horses. A behind-the-back traveling shot, after he gets up, reveals a head bandage. We see a horrifying row of staples once he removes the bandage; the staples are holding a deep gash in his skull together, and as the young man Saran-wraps his head before showering, we begin piecing together the recent events of his life.

He has suffered a severe head injury getting thrown off a bronco at a rodeo. His recovery is an uncertain question mark. His rope hand is crippled up, his fingers unable to clasp and unclasp at will. With his rodeo buddies, early in the picture, Brady sits around a campfire surrounded by darkness. “By NFL standards,” one says, referring to his “10-plus concussions…I should be dead.”

Brady lives at home with his father, a taciturn denizen of the bars and casino poker stools, and his 15-year-old sister, a vibrant spirit living with Asperger’s syndrome. They’re played by Jandreau’s real-life father and sister; Brady’s friends are played by his real friends. The Rider belongs in the Badlands between fiction and nonfiction, and Zhao knows her way around. Rarely are these relative screen newcomers asked to pump up the dramatics. The movie seems to be happening naturally, even when the individual shots composed so effortlessly by Zhao and her cinematographer (and real-life partner) Joshua James Richards cast a forlorn spell.

The story follows a clear through-line, concerning how hard it is to give up the most important thing in your life. Brady tries to ignore his calling, on doctor’s orders—one more head injury could kill him. He tries to adjust to a new, tamer routine, working various jobs at a supermarket and settling for training his friends how to last eight seconds in the ring. His best friend, Lane (played with fierce resolve by Lane Scott), is paralyzed from a rodeo fall. He is living proof of the dangers of this life.

But when The Rider takes the time to show Brady in his element, training wild horses, the movie captures brilliantly just how hard it’ll be for him to leave the horses behind. In one particular minute-long take, Brady and his newest horse, Apollo, become a team, Brady riding him in tight circles, teaching him to trust the one holding the reins. There’s little that’s traditionally reassuring about such moments, but they’re seriously moving and persuasive. Even the dialogue is designed for expedient information: Coaching his friend, using a makeshift mechanical contraption, Brady mutters: “Ride it like it’s gonna be the last horse you’ll ever get on.” The line comes and goes before we know it, yet it’s a statement of character that feels heartbreakingly true.

Westerns have been selling variations on that line, and this sort of story, ever since the silent days (and in dime novels before that). The difference here, with The Rider, lies in the ambiguities too often left out. Brady’s life’s work may kill him; a life without it may kill him more slowly. Director Zhao got to know the Lakota Sioux and the Indian cowboys (fantastic paradox) on her previous feature, Songs My Brothers Taught Me. She met Jandreau, a member of the Lower Brule Sioux Tribe, in 2015 on the Pine Ridge Reservation. She realized this man, this face, this life deserves a film. And her film deserves your time and attention, not because it’s “worthy,” not even because it takes you to a striking part of America and American myth you may not know, but because it’s just plain excellent.

Silver Reef House
More Film...
Booksmart
School’s out forever

Booksmart besties Molly and Amy pretty much aced high school. Valedictorian and student-body president Molly (Beanie Feldstein) was accepted to Yale, her top-choice university—and the first step in her goal of becoming the youngest Supreme Court justice—while study buddy and super-activist…

more »
Long Shot
Make America laugh again

Seth Rogen’s rambunctious brand of self-deprecation tends to dictate the tone of the many raunchy studio comedies he’s appeared in over the last decade, but Long Shot finally provides a co-star who can match that dopey charm. In director Jonathan Levine’s frisky romantic comedy,…

more »
The Brink
The hate you give

The charm of odious men is overrated. At a certain point in The Brink, Alison Klayman’s brisk documentary tagalong behind far-right pot-stirrer Steve Bannon, an admirer tells Bannon that although he might have just come off poorly in an onstage debate, at least he’ll have surprised and…

more »
Events
Today
Upper Skagit Library Photo Contest

12:00pm

Plover Ferry Rides

12:00pm|Blaine Harbor

The Hobbit

7:00pm|Judson Auditorium

Matilda the Musical

7:00pm|Bellingham Arts Academy for Youth

Birch Bay Kite Festival

10:00am|Birch Bay Beach Park

Birch Bay Book Sale

10:00am|Birch Bay Beach Park

Lummi Island Artists' Studio Tour

10:00am|Lummi Island

Plover Ferry Rides

12:00pm|Blaine Harbor

Solace on the slopes

7:00am

Ski to Sea Race

7:30am|Mt. Baker to Marine Park

Rabbit Ride

8:30am|Fairhaven Bicycle

Ski to Sea Seconds Sale

10:00am|Good Earth Pottery

Historic Fairhaven Festival

10:00am|Historic Fairhaven

Paper Voodoo Workshop

10:00am|Blaine Harbor Center

Langar in Lynden

11:00am| Guru Nanak Gursikh Gurdwara

Bellingham Handmade Market

11:00am|Goods Nursery and Produce

Plover Ferry Rides

12:00pm|Blaine Harbor

Public Sails

12:00pm|Squalicum Harbor

History Tour

12:30pm|Whatcom Museum's Old City Hall

History Tour

12:30pm|Whatcom Museum's Old City Hall

La Conner Live!

1:00pm|Gilkey Square

Audubon at the Museum

1:30pm|Whatcom Museum's Old City Hall

Art of Jazz

4:00pm|BAAY Theater

Oceans Flamenco with Savannah Fuentes

7:30pm|Tha Outlet

Trove Web
Tomorrow
Upper Skagit Library Photo Contest

12:00pm

Plover Ferry Rides

12:00pm|Blaine Harbor

Plover Ferry Rides

12:00pm|Blaine Harbor

Public Sails

12:00pm|Squalicum Harbor

Oceans Flamenco with Savannah Fuentes

7:30pm|Tha Outlet

Plant Diagnostic Clinics

4:30pm|Bellingham Public Library

Swing Dancing Classes

5:00pm|Presence Studio

Open Mic Night

7:00pm|Village Books

Salish Sea Early Music Festival

7:00pm|St. Paul's Episcopal Church

Poetrynight

7:00pm|Alternative Library

Guffawingham

9:00pm|Firefly Lounge

Village Books Cascadia Weekly Subscribe Ad 1
Tuesday
Upper Skagit Library Photo Contest

12:00pm

Plover Ferry Rides

12:00pm|Blaine Harbor

Mapping Mars

4:00pm|Wilson Library

Artist Workshop

6:00pm|Bellingham Public Library

Bellingham Reads

6:30pm|Bellingham Public Library

Books & Brews

7:00pm|Village Books

Skagit Folk Dancers

7:00pm|Bayview Civic Hall

Punch Up Comedy Showcase and Open Mic

7:30pm|The Shakedown

Spring Choral Concert

8:00pm|Performing Arts Center Concert Hall

see our complete calendar »

Cascadia Weekly Subscribe Ad 1 Trove Web Village Books Kids Guide 2019