What it's about: Brady Blackburn is a professional cowboy who suffered a traumatic brain injury due to a riding accident. After leaving the hospital, Brady slowly gets back into riding and training while dealing with lingering effects. He's told by doctors that if he ever rides again he is risking death. But the cowboy life is the only life he's ever known, so despite clearly knowing the risks, he pushes himself for one more ride at glory.
Based on the trailer I had seen, I expected The Rider to be a tough watch. It's not that I was wrong [the film is incredibly bleak at times] but there are so many beautiful grace notes, so much life in The Rider. It is a surprisingly sweet character study that centers on a fully-developed community. The documentary style of the film really helped bring me into this world and felt comforted by it.
The line between narrative and documentary being gently blurred is the biggest stylistic appeal of the film. This isn't a unique approach but there is something about it that really makes The Rider feel like pure cinema. And unlike most films that use a community of non-professional actors to live out their real lives in a thinly veiled narrative, The Rider strikes me much more like a documentary than typical.
This is especially the case in the second half of the film, once Brady begins working again with horses, and this is when the film really comes together. There is more obviously written dialogue near the start of the film [a bonfire scene between four friends designed to introduce another character who we come to meet, for example] and the non-professional cast comes off less comfortable in those moments.
Brady's relationship with his younger sister Lilly really grew on me, as well. There is a lot of love and tenderness in their relationship that we don't often see in movies, perhaps because their bond and Brady's natural protection of her. It is one of the most beautiful character relationships I expect to see this year.
Brady isn't at all the character that I expected going into the film, perhaps this is just my own bias against the cowboy way of life. He's characteristically rough-and-tumble, sure, but much more sensitive than the stereotypical cowboy.
At points of The Rider I realized that the simple people featured are complexly written. Brady's father, played by the actor's real father, is the best example -- there isn't much on the surface, but the small glimpses into how the death of his wife and the tragic suffering of his oldest son affects him is really subtle.
One place where the narrative works: Brady gets a temporary job at a grocery store where he is immediately out of place. How he adapts, though, is a fun bit of character work.
The film's most poignant and emotionally wrenching subplot involves Lane Scott, Brady's horse riding hero and mentor. Lane narratively functions as the risk if Brady continues to push his physical limits, but it doesn't come off as cynically as that. Brady visits Lane, who has suffered extensive brain damage and now lives his life without the ability to walk or speak. The moments they share together are, again, incredibly tender. When they watch YouTube videos of Lane's former success riding bulls and broncos, it is a cathartic and intense experience. Again, though, The Rider avoids it feeling exploitative.
It shouldn't go unsaid that The Rider is an extremely beautifully photographed film. In the prairies of the Badlands, the environment does a lot of the work, but cinematographer Joshua James Richards [who also worked on British farmland film God's Own Country] deserves a lot of credit. How he captures horse riding with sweeping long shots fully taking in the movement of the horse is stunning.
Whenever Brady rides a horse, this beauty is tinged with a bit of fear, creating for a tense and emotionally complicated experience.
Coming from China as an outsider, director Chloé Zhao's status helps with the documentary eye. Nothing in the film feels particularly staged, merely captured. Especially in scenes where Brady is working with horses the camera becomes a neutral eye, studying the directions and movements of the character and horse right along with the viewer.
Taking tabs on the year so far, The Rider is my favorite film I've seen in 2018. The way it subverts my expectations of these characters and their lives created a beautiful and emotionally rich experience. It might be the best example of using real people to live their lives inside of a narrative film I've ever seen. At this point, I would be surprised if it didn't end up in my top 10 list come the end of the year.