(Image courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics via

(Image courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics via


Awakening silence opens The Rider and introduces us to the morning routine of Brady Blackburn.  Past the rise-and-shine toiletries, our man removes bandages to reveal a long line of staples on the right parietal side of his head, sealing a sizable gash from some unspoken injury.  Without exposition, we can only fathom a guess of the circumstances as we watch Brady pluck those bloody staples out of his skull with nary a peep of pain. Before long, we get the clue.  This man is a cowboy.

Normally, that’s all you have to say and the portrait of toughness is painted, but therein lies the mystery within the mundane of The Rider.  Populated by untrained actors and inspired by true events of these rookie performers, Chloé Zhao’s sophomore feature film stands on that determination only to slowly reveal the internal aches underneath the grizzled exteriors of hat brims, denim, and vices.  Gorgeously shot and rare with rural vigor, The Rider won the Art Cinema Award from the Directors Fortnight of the 2017 Cannes Film Festival and was nominated for four Independent Spirit Awards.  This festival darling cannot help but impress.

The Rider saunters through the sulk that is the recovery of Brady, played by Brady Jandreau.  He’s a South Dakota saddle bronc rodeo performer lean with his stature and even leaner with his words.  A nasty spill has him on the mend buried under cigarettes, joints, mindless TV, and leftovers in his modular home shared with his patronizingly oppositional father (Tim Jandreau) and special needs sister (Lilly Jandreau).  Brady is itching to get back doing what he loves, namely the competition and the side job profiting on his savant knack for taming and training horses. Prospects are low. He is uneducated and untrained in anything else, meaning Brady is looking at menial jobs to make ends meet should his injury keep him out of the chutes and saddles.

LESSON #1: THE COWBOY MENTALITY-- A key early scene observes a campfire night between Brady and some of his fellow rodeo boys.  Cracking beers and shooting the s--t to compare injuries and swap stories of toughness, these men still give pause for God-fearing prayer, shared superstitions, acoustic serenade, and pensive reflections.  All of these observed traits reveal soulfulness under the outward toughness. However, the hard edge is required to win.

That’s the microcosm of The Rider and its character study.  Zhao’s film embeds us in this man’s plight, one filled with wavering masculine composure.  That meaningful dynamic is emphasized even further by Brady’s tight relationship with his former idol and mentor Lane Scott (playing himself), a former champion now trapped by severe paralysis.  The risks are all too clear for Brady, but livelihoods and expectations are high for fear of becoming just like Lane.

When the focus broadens away from the human flaws, the production value extracts the pristine within the desolate.  A soundtrack of rustling wind works around composer Nathan Halpern’s slight musical score. The natural cinematography of Joshua James Richards leans with intimacy toward faces grimacing with challenges and disappointments.  With equal capability and grace, Richards pulls back to capture every sunlit inch of the Badland vistas and lived-in reservation fringe settings. For most, The Rider will feel like a documentary, but these artistic flourishes brush a varnish of cinematic magic.

Rather than dispensing shined up hero worship like Clint Eastwood’s The 15:17 to Paris, The Rider strives for the raw and the real with its use of inexperienced non-actors.  Brady Jandreau is a fascinating subject who stirs poignant empathy through his struggles.  It is easy to get lost in his sullen and determined eyes and share the cracks of his uncertainty.  The depth here to unearth compelling emotions and create parched poetry is a stunning success for Chloé Zhao (Songs My Brothers Taught Me).  She’s a talented woman who immediately vaults into your “keep an eye on” list within the independent film scene.  Even with its lumbering limits, The Rider is one of the more impassioned storytelling achievements of this young year.

LESSON #2: WHEN LIVELIHOOD IS TAKEN AWAY-- Brady has been dealt a tough hand with only two choices of play.  He can accept the mortality risks to seek his meant-to-be dreams or, he can learn to let it go and move on.  With either path, it’s about Brady finding purpose for his life and dreams. Neither way is easy.

LESSON #3: RIDE THROUGH THE PAIN-- Brady tells one of his thick buddies that “a brain is different than ribs” as to why he doesn’t just get up off the dirt of rehabilitation and hop back on that bucking horse in search of prize money and notoriety.  Their reply to him is this lesson, which harks back to Lesson #1 and the difficult lifestyle choices of Lesson #2. The personal agonies are not all physical. At what point does Brady have to be honest with himself to what his body and his head are telling him?