The Rider November 24, 2018
1 Hr., 45 Mins.
rady Jandreau, a 22-year-old of Lakota Sioux descent, didn’t really watch movies growing up. Most of his free time was spent with horses. He started riding a little after his 1st birthday, and would begin training wild mares by the time he was 12 years old. At 20, he was a rodeo star.
Chloé Zhao, a filmmaker who turned 36 earlier this year, was brought
up in China. As she came of age, she rebelliously evolved to become an American pop-culture obsessive. After getting a political science degree at Mount Holyoke College and then studying film production at The Tisch School of the Arts, she made her feature filmmaking debut in 2015, following a period of short-film directing, with Songs My Brothers Taught Me.
Jandreau and Zhao first met during the production of the latter picture, which was shot at the Pine Ridge Oglala Lakota Reservation, around the ranch at which Jandreau worked. The rider and the director got to talking, and Zhao noticed that Jandreau had prominent actorial qualities. "The way he trains horses was what convinced me the most,” she told the Los Angeles Times in April. “To see him act like a father, like a mother, like a friend, like a dance partner to a wild animal and get that animal to trust him — I figured maybe he could do that for the camera as well.”
The Rider, Zhao’s much-buzzed-about second feature-length movie, is Jandreau-centric. He plays the main character (also called Brady, but with Blackburn as his surname), and his real-life sister and father play their cinematic equivalents. It was photographed around the reservation; many of his friends are part of the ensemble. The movie is semi-biographical. Specifically it circles around a life-altering event. In the spring of 2016, shortly after Jandreau and Zhao initially met, the former fell off a horse. He irreparably injured his skull; a steel plate would carefully be placed in his head. His doctors told him that his riding days would have to come to an end, something which would force him to comprehensively reexamine his life.
The Rider inspects the aftermath. It explores the semi-fictionalized Jandreau’s recovery process, his relationships with his family, his friendships (especially one with a man named Lane, who, in the film, is said to have been involved in a comparable accident), and how he goes about patching up his life. (Namely by getting a factotum job at a grocery store, his first “real” occupation.)
The movie is most heartrending when Jandreau is acting opposite the animals with whom he grew up. One close relationship with a mount is dashed, distressingly so, early in the film. Our protagonist's father, in part due to a shortage to money, has to sell Brady’s most beloved horse. But later, while visiting a fellow South Dakotan’s property, Brady gets to know a mare named Apollo, who is haughty and seemingly untrainable. It is in the scenes during which Brady is priming and training the mount that the movie becomes most emotionally heady: Jandreau’s skills are palpable and thrilling to behold, but always in the backs of our minds is a reminder that he cannot, as much as he would like to, showcase his breakthroughs in a rodeo setting.
The Rider’s narrative is streamlined but subliminally prismatic. It narrowly uncovers what it’s like to grieve after a soul-damaging accident, but it also lays out how, especially when you’re bred in a landscape where a taciturn brand of machismo dominates, you might be expected or feel pressured to. It's a documentation of an oft-unsung artform, but it also examines what it takes to be master of it, and what might happen to the person who creates it when they find themselves suddenly unable to create it anymore. Zhao helms lyrically, and with a persuasive attentiveness toward Jandreau’s surroundings and the cultural landscape in which he was brought up. The latter is revelatory through a naked, soulful performance.
If there are any faults in The Rider — and there are few — they stem from the kitchen-sink treatment. A partiality for limited dialogue and the ogling of landscapes is suitable for a Terrence Malick-imitating sort of fiction. But The Rider is not straightforward, everyday life-imbued fiction — it's more complicated when so much truth is being played with — and that fact makes Zhao’s sensibilities feel limited in some cases. It's undoubted that Jandreau, a doyen of horse-riding and training, was and is more passionate than the dialogue lets him be. Zhao’s artistic inclinations do not much allow the characters to reveal their hurt, their drive, when I suspect that even if it might have still been sometimes-stunted in real life, the constant quietude wasn’t so widespread. Still, the movie is empathetic and revealing — and ossifies Zhao’s status as a great naturalist filmmaker. B+