Zhao has made one of the better Westerns of recent years.
Striking in both its presentation and its simplicity, writer-director Chloé Zhao’s The Rider is a quietly captivating portrait of the American West. The film, which follows Native American rodeo star Brady Blackburn (Brady Jandreau, playing a fictional version of himself), is a beautiful deconstruction of the problematic Cowboys and Indians trope of bygone days.
Jandreau, whose physical appearance calls to mind both South American superstar Rodrigo Santoro and the late Heath Ledger, is essentially both cowboy and Indian, and Zhao uses this to show how near and far we are from those racist depictions of white cowboys gunning down tomahawk-wielding Natives on the plains. Some of the film’s most beautiful moments find Brady working with horses, and his skill with and affection for the animals is on prominent display. The fact that Jandreau’s real-life sister and father play versions of themselves here adds even more authenticity and realism to The Rider. There is genuine affection in their encounters, but scar tissue seems to affect every corner of Brady’s life.
The Blackburns have lost their matriarch to cancer, casting a long shadow on Brady’s home life. But the key dramatic catalyst of the film is a recent accident that has left Brady separated from his passion. Brady’s brain injury, which has given him both a scar and the occasional seizure, imbues the film with a tragic tension that is realized in Brady’s encounters with his paralyzed friend Lane (played by Lane Scott). Brady and Lane’s resolve in the face of what has become of Lane hints at the possibility that Brady will not take the doctor’s advice to quit riding. In their world, Lane’s fate is simply a possible side effect to their way of life.
Zhao’s work here harkens to the kind of realist filmmaking from Clint Eastwood, Alexander Payne, Andrea Arnold and Cristian Mungiu. But The Rider lacks the vicious bite of Million Dollar Baby, the humor of Nebraska, the discomfort of Fish Tank and the all-out horror of 4 months, 3 weeks and 2 days. The Rider’s primary flaw is that Zhao fails to take complete advantage of the fictional canvas she has given herself. As The Rider is not a documentary, she has the power to add emotional weight to the film. By underplaying each encounter, Zhao leaves the pulse of the viewer at a steady beat throughout.
Filmed in South Dakota’s stunning, bleak Badlands, The Rider’s landscape so clearly fits the lives of its characters that they seem to have been made from the land itself. All of it is captured with an outrageously successful combination of soaring wide shots and tender, intimate moments by cinematographer Joshua James Richards, who here builds on the exceptional work he delivered in last year’s gorgeous God’s Own Country.
Nevertheless, Zhao has made one of the better Westerns of recent years. The genre is so testosterone-laden that it’s hard enough to find solid female roles in front of the camera lot let alone behind it. Despite its flaws, The Rider is a timeless tale that is somehow still very much of our time.