Writer/director Chloé Zhao's gorgeous film "The Rider" is a perfect example of a filmmaker's devotion to her craft. Nominated for Best Feature, Best Director, Best Cinematography and Best Editing at the 2018 Independent Spirit Wards, Ms. Zhao is following up her highly-lauded 2015 film debut "Songs My Brother Taught Me" with another important story, once again centered on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota.
Brady Blackburn (Brady Jandreau), a young, and up-and-coming rodeo star, has released himself from the hospital. His last competition ended in a bad spill from a broncing horse, with the animal stomping on his skull. He now sports a metal plate in is head and he's been warned that his riding days are over. Another bad blow to his noggin could cost Brady his life.
Needing to rest and recover, Brady's sister Lilly (Lilly Jandreau), who has Asperger's Syndrome, keeps him company, while his father, Wayne (Tim Jandreau) resorts to drinking and gambling. At odds with his "new" life, Brady is torn between his rodeo friends and his old friend, Lane (Lane Scott), who is paralyzed from a bull-riding accident.
Spending time reliving their glory days through videos at Lane's rehab facility fuels Brady's desire to get back on a bucking bronc. Even horse training poses a huge threat for Brady.
He possesses an innate ability to connect with his large, unruly charges, calming them and slowly earning their trust. It's a magnificent transition to behold. But an unfortunate bump of his head by one of the horses sends Brady back to the hospital.
Ms. Zhao met 20-year-old Brady Jandreau in 2015 when she was visiting the Pine Ridge Reservation. He is a member of the Lower Brule Sioux Tribe and a bona fide cowboy. After learning of his tragic accident, and the psychological impact on Brady's life, Zhao chose to make her next film about his heart-rending struggles as he comes to terms with his new reality.
As she did in her first film, Zhao utilizes these real-life people as her actors. Brady is so incredibly loving towards Lilly, Lane and the horses he trains. Lilly is a star --- totally delightful, providing much of the levity. And one can tell she clearly loves her brother.
Tim Jandreau has a difficult job playing himself because he is not always a very nice person. He has drinking and gambling issues, which exacerbate the financial problems facing the Blackburns. Money is so tight that poor Brady is forced to give up one of his most-loved possessions.
"The Rider" is extraordinary in its cinematography. It also provides a small glimpse into the lives of these marginalized people painstakingly trying to eke out an existence. Reservation life is difficult enough, but for Brady, trying to redefine his life, the odds seem insurmountable. I truly hope Ms. Zhao follows up on his progress --- "The Rider" demands a sequel.
Opinion: Strong See It Now!
Based on actual events in the life of a true American cowboy named Brady Jandreau, "The Rider" provides a fascinating insight into Brady's near-fatal accident, and how he, his family and friends are affected --- to this day.
Writer/director Chloé Zhao follows up on her debut film, the critically acclaimed "Songs My Brothers Taught Me" (2015), with this production that features three members of the Jandreau family playing their fictional selves. Brady Blackburn (Jandreau), a rodeo star who rode bucking broncos, was thrown from his horse in April 2016. The horse stomped on his head, leading to a three-day coma, internal bleeding, and an enigma about what he would do from this point on.
"The Rider" opens with Brady examining, in a mirror, the metal stitches in his head. The audience is left to wonder if this is real, or part of a fictional story. It turns out to be all too authentic, and we learn Brady is told by doctors he can never ride again. This is a death sentence to a cowboy. But Brady finds solace and income with his incredible ability to communicate with horses that need to be broken for future sale. Much of the movie depicts him in this endeavor, and it's truly amazing to witness.
His father Wayne Blackburn (Tim Jandreau, his real-life father who taught him everything he knows about horses and the rodeo) gambles away the mortgage, forcing Brady to relinquish a prized possession. Wayne also tries unsuccessfully to convince Brady not to ride any more, admonishing him to "Go ahead and kill yourself!". But his younger sister Lilly Blackburn (Lilly Jandreau), who has Asperger's Syndrome, supports him wholly.
Brady has a close circle of friends/cowboys who try their best to cheer his often sullen disposition. As Brady distances himself from some of the people in his life, he finds comfort visiting his close friend Lane Scott in the hospital. Lane was a bull riding specialist until a fall from one left him a quadriplegic, with severe speech impediments. Lane's tragic accident reminds Brady that he was actually fortunate that he wasn't more severely injured. The scenes with the two of them are touching without being maudlin. Zhao's comment: "Working with Brady and Lane...was one of the most humbling and inspiring moments of my life".
"The Rider" plays like a virtual documentary, and in some ways it is just that. Yet these flesh-and-blood denizens of South Dakota, many of whom are members of the Lower Brule Sioux Tribe and genuine cowboys, are quite credible actors, a tribute to Zhao's skill behind the camera. Brady Jandreau, in particular, is a strong presence on the screen, carrying the film as he does.
"The Rider" played at virtually all the major film festivals in 2017 --- Cannes, Sundance, Toronto, Telluride, SXSW and New York. It was also nominated for several Independent
Spirit Awards --- Best Feature, Best Director, Best Cinematography and Best Editing.
Opinion: See It Now!