After suffering a near fatal head injury, talented rodeo cowboy Brady (real life cowboy Brady Jandreau) is forced to re-evaluate his future. Set against the South Dakota Black Hills and the actor's real-life family, the film brings a quiet authenticity to the exploration of humanity.
Filmmaker Chloé Zhao turns story of real-life bronc rider Brady Jandreau into gritty, graceful character study.
Here’s a movie that’s in no rush to work a path into your head and heart. It’s the intent of Chinese-American filmmaker Chloé Zhao to carve a story out of the real lives of the people she puts on screen; her docu-fiction technique was what distinguished her striking 2015 feature debut Songs My Brothers Taught Me, set among the Lakota Sioux in South Dakota’s Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. Zhao’s follow-up is set in the same area, and again uses non-pro actors to achieve a realism Hollywood can only dream of achieving. Once The Rider hooks you – and believe me, it will – there’s no way you will ever forget it.
The remarkable Brady Jandreau – a star in the making with no acting experience to lean on – tackles the central role of Lakota cowboy Brady Blackburn, a 20-year-old saddle-bronc rider and horse trainer who lives for the rodeo. Then a bronc bucks him hard in the skull and puts him in a three-day coma; the doc says another kick like that will kill him. As it is, Brady, his fingers gnarled in a permanent curl, is already feeling a dizziness and weakness as foreign to him as a desk job. Zhao knew Brady before and after his similar real-life accident and uses – notice we don’t say exploits – his feelings about how competition define a life to construct a film of touching gravity and rare grace.
She also enlisted the actor’s own family and friends, playing barely fictionalized versions of themselves to add to the authenticity. That’s Tim Jandreau as Brady’s hardcase gambler father and Lilly Jandreau as his on-the-spectrum sister, whose emotions flow as freely as the white river on the reservation. Tensions rise when Dad – Mom is dead – sells his son’s favorite horse just to keep a roof over their heads. Even in a beat-up trailer, a day-to-day existence is difficult to maintain since Brady’s rodeo earnings dry up.
Zhao never resorts to crass manipulation and tearjerking to hold audience attention. The soul of The Rider resides in its people, proud members of the Lower Brule Sioux Tribe. They include Brady’s best friend Lane (Lane Scott), a bull rider paralyzed by a car accident that injured his brain and keeps him in rehab, a shadow of his former self. Brady finds solace for a while in training wild horses, a job he’s being doing since childhood when he showed a natural empathy for building trust in animals that won’t be saddled and forced to conform. In these training scenes, Zhao and cinematographer Joshua James Richards achieve a delicate visual beauty that beggars description.
Set against the stunning vistas of the American heartland, The Rider explores the physical and
psychological impact on a modern cowboy who feels useless if he can’t do what he was born to do. Should he risk his life for his idea of what gives him value? Zhao explores these questions with an artist’s eye and a deep respect for the dignity of what makes us human. Her film is as indelible as it is unmissable.
Peter Travers, Rolling Stone, 12th April 2018.
The Rider is a rare gem, a small, acutely observed portrait of a few lives on what used to be the frontier but is now a desolate backwater, the windswept badlands around Pine Ridge, South Dakota. Focusing on a young cowboy whose promising future as a top rodeo rider is suddenly jeopardized by a dreadful head injury, this spare and intimate second feature by Chloe Zhao beautifully captures the way a handful of people stoically deal with the meager hands life has dealt them. Commercial prospects are naturally quite modest, but the film will definitely gather a robust core of support from festival audiences and viewers happy to turn off the main highway and onto the back roads in search of good work.
The flavor of the Old West permeates every aspect of this quiet, sensitive piece, and the people in it live lives very similar to those they would have lived in generations past, save for the weed and cellphones. At the center of it is Brady Blackburn (Brady Jandreau), who when first seen evokes Frankenstein with his stapled-together scalp wound, the result of a recent severe injury in which a rodeo horse stomped on his skull.
Rodeo and horse training have always been, and promised to remain, Brady’s life, and the doctors’ edict that he’s got to give it all up is tough to take. Not just that, but his immediate circle counts on him for everything; good-natured sister Lilly (Lilly Jandreau) has limited capacities, while best pal Lane (Lane Scott) suffers from disabilities that would seem to indicate a lifetime of institutional care. Dad (Tim Jandreau) is a tough guy more prone to man-up-style challenges than help or concern. Mom is dead.
Working in a style that one might call lyrical realism, Zhao, whose first feature Songs My Brother Taught Me focused on the Lakota Sioux in the same neighborhood and stirred favorable reactions at Sundance two years ago, brings a few other characters into the mix, just enough to indicate how limited the locals’ prospects are. The old cowboy ethic still prevails, but its tenets seem far less applicable to modern life than they did even in The Last Picture Show several decades back, and the evidence is everywhere to be seen that there’s little in these parts to sustain a secure life or suggest anything better in the future.
This sensitively limned subtext quietly informs the foreground action that is always dominated by Brady’s inner turmoil; his uncertainty lies at the heart of the matter here but is never turned into melodrama just to induce crisis or tension. While his condition remains manifestly impaired — his right hand has become so gnarled that he is constantly obliged to pry his fingers out of a curl — Brady is forced to admit the truth about his condition. But as he slowly improves, you can essentially read his mind as he begins weighing the idea of taking the risk versus living a life that precludes the possibility of climbing back on a horse and competing again.
The film’s elegiac style and admiration for stoic reserve, common traits in American cinema about the West in earlier days, could not be more out of step with the tenor and sensibilities of the moment, and more’s the pity. But Zhao, a Chinese filmmaker who lives in Denver, has resurrected these venerable approaches with a natural, unaffected confidence that is bracing. The result is a beautiful, honest account of a tough way of life, one that produces and requires a strong sense of identity and values.
If all the characters here feel like the real deal, it is because they are; the Blackburn clan are played by real-life family members Brady, Tim and Lilly Jandreau. Zhao met Brady before his real-life accident and developed the story out of the aftermath.
Joshua James Richards’ cinematography is splendidly lyrical, evocative and alive to every observed moment.
Todd McCarthy, Hollywood Reporter, 22nd May 2017.
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Total Number of Responses: 28
Film Score (0-5): 4.68
We had 107 people online at 7.45 pm for our first ever online screening. The film ended with an average of about 70 people watching at once - if you decided to stop we'd love to hear whether it was the streaming experience or the film that made you turn it off.
Below are all the comments we received about The Rider, thank you to everyone who joined us:
"I really enjoyed it … although at the start I wasn’t sure as it seemed too depressing for my current mood. It was both sad but strangely uplifting as Brady was very compassionate looking after his old friend and sister. His love and empathy with horses was very special. It looks like a very hard life."
"Isn’t it amazing that a Chinese woman director working with non-professional locals in a testosterone driven activity could produce such a great film? Loved it just as much the second time. Well done to the GFS tech team!"
"Very impressive screening of "The Rider" tonight. Faultless streaming, and the film was very good. Bravo GFS for making that happen!"
"Thank you so much for arranging the viewing this evening of The Rider. I appreciate all the research, setting up and your time you have spent to arrange for the film viewing this evening and hopefully for the remaining season during the CV lockdown. From this lockdown we are learning to exploit the network even more and with your expertise you are bringing this to Godalming Film Society, with my deepest gratitude."
"Film finished and I am in tears. Great movie."
"This is a very assured film. The soundtrack of ordinary sounds link the mesmerising close shots which introduce us to this new world of the rodeo cowboy. Long shots break up the underlying intensity of the story to open up to the landscape and the big sky. There's a rhythm to Zhao's film, and a beauty to the horses. I grew up not far from the Black Hills and can attest to this laconic, laid back, unassuming way of life."
"Fantastic effort by everyone to screen this film digitally. Really easy to play and excellent quality. Very nice to have the familiarity of film night amid all the chaos. Just need the five minute intro and it would be perfect! The film itself was a quiet gem; an intimate vision of another world."
"Thank you all very much for organising these viewings at home. You are all magnificent"
"Amazing non-professional actors, beautiful cinematography. A film that keeps developing in my thoughts after having watched it. Thank you for sorting out the logistics for us to watch at home!"
"A wonderful film. Poignant with many moving moments. The scenery is stunning. I couldn't believe it when I read after I had seen the film, that the actors playing the parts were not professional actors. They played the parts with outstanding realism. I am so glad we were able to see the film thanks to live streaming."
"Glad I sat down to watch this one... Great acting from the main protagonist. We watched it from the comfort of my own lounge, G n T in one hand, remote in the other. We had a faultless streaming experience, event managed to cast it to our Smart TV."
"Firstly thank you SO much for creating a way to watch at home. Sensitive film about a tragic story with beautiful cinematography. Loved the relationship between Brady & his sister (also his sister in real life) as well as Brady & Lane (played by real life Lane Smith). I'm glad the director didn't over dramatise the emotion & become soppy like a lot of movies do."
"Just watched The Rider. The link worked perfectly, everything displayed and was controlled exactly as explained, on both our ancient iPad and on a spiffy new MacBook Air. Just need to work out how to get either of them to work on the TV...
And the film? So poignant, the more so for being mostly true, and beautifully shot and acted. The training of the horses must have been abbreviated but everything else about them rang true and was a joy. My only criticism was that it was a little slow, especially at first, so perhaps a little more editing could have been in order. Oh, and the subtitles meant I 'heard' every word, so satisfying.
So, well done the GFS, from every aspect."
"Moody, bleak. A bit slow. Was it about family or the cruelty of the rodeo business?"
"Just wanted to let you know that we watched the film tonight. A really lovely film and a fantastic idea - a big thank you to GFS. It’s good to have something to look forward to in these strange times."
"Firstly, gold stars all round to GFS for enabling the online screening – brilliant, thank you. An extraordinary film. I’m speechless really".
"Thank you so much for streaming this wonderful film. We both loved it – a touching elegiac Steinbeck updating. The whole tender filigree of relationships set against the brutal world of rodeo and the wide empty spaces. Once again many thanks"
"I would like to say a big thank you for organising the film showing tonight by online streaming via Godalming Film Society. A positive note from the lockdown is that GFS is now able to stream the films to GFS members home, although I do miss the big screen. Also it is good to keep the Film Industry supported during such adverse times. With such deep gratitude".
"Thank you so much for organising the streaming of this film last evening. It was certainly something to look forward to at the end of the day. Initially, I wasn't sure I'd stay the course, but I'm very pleased I did. The landscapes were stunning and opened a window on another world, when we're all so enclosed at the moment. The characters were sensitively drawn and full of humanity, and I now know a lot more about the rodeo. I'm looking forward to the remaining showings".
"I enjoyed the film a lot. Streaming the rest of the season is an excellent idea, we’re looking forward to seeing the rest of the films. Big thanks yous to the committee for making it happen".
"The Rider was an extraordinary film, we so appreciated being able to have it streamed to our iPad. We were impressed by the understated way the simple yet powerful story unfolded. Touching when he worked with the wild horses but more so when he was with his disabled friend giving him encouragement and pleasure. Thank you".
"A true story but dramatized into an interesting film observing Brady Blackburn living his dream as a Rodeo Rider then through the adversity having to rebuild his identity, his confidence, his life skill sets after a major life changing injury. The empathy and support from an unseen injury is nearly ground zero coping with his life both in a family unit and the big wide world expecting him to pick up from where you he was living his dream. This film exemplified what true life is about from enjoying your lifestyle to then trying to establish some normality into life after a major unseen injury and how lacking in support structures to rehabilitate people in the world, in the 21st Century for people who suffer such major life changing. Hopefully this will be the start for the change. Full credit to the Director and Screenplay Writer Chloe Zhao for focusing on an sensitive topic with non-professional artists in the film, the choreography was natural to the storyline".
"First, thank you for arranging for us to be able to view this film at home! My rating for the film is: Excellent. I loved the naturalistic acting and the beautiful photography. The scenes featuring the horses were particularly enjoyable and moving".