Review: Rodeo drama 'The Rider' powerfully explores perseverance — and its limits

Brady Jandreau

Brady Jandreau Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

Every once in a while a movie comes along that is so genuine and truthful that it seems to transcend narrative film and find some magical space between fiction and reality. The Rider is one of those movies.

It begins with a young man prying surgical staples out of his head with a knife. It’s a phenomenal tone-setter: Both the long gash running the length of his head and the matter-of-factness with which he completes the act relate a sense of assuredness, a quality that will be tested throughout the film.

His name is Brady Blackburn (Brady Jandreau), his wound the result of a nasty rodeo accident. After essentially escaping from the hospital, Brady recuperates at his home on South Dakota’s Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. Getting back to the rodeo is the only thing on his mind, but the lingering effects of his injury—seizures and a right hand that randomly won’t unclench—make a quick return a dangerous idea at best.

To a large degree, the film’s authenticity owes to its real-life foundation. Writer-director-producer Chloé Zhao met Jandreau while filming her previous (and first) feature, Songs My Brothers Taught Me (2015), and based The Rider on his actual injury. By Jandreau’s estimation the film is 60 percent truth and 40 percent fiction, though his skillful performance will leave you guessing as to what’s what.

Beyond his acting, Jandreau’s training abilities allow Zhao to capture some incredible scenes of the fictional Blackburn actually backing a stubborn horse. The camera doesn’t cut, with cameraman following close behind Jandreau/Blackburn or standing just outside the pen. At these moments, we essentially shift into documentary.

Zhao cast non-actors in the supporting roles as well, so that feeling remains in varying degrees throughout the film. Blackburn’s father, Tim, and his sister, Lilly, are both played by their real-world Jandreau counterparts. Like Brady, they show surprising prowess in their roles. Tim finds a subtle groove between alcoholic, absent gambler and kindly pal; Lilly, who has Asperger Syndrome, expresses substantial emotional support. And most affecting of all is the performance of Lane Scott, Jandreau’s best friend and a former rodeo rider himself, who was horrifically injured in a car accident. Jandreau’s visits to the hospital provide some of the most powerful interactions ever caught on film.

Of course, casting is only part of the equation. With script and cinematography working in harmony with talent, this Chinese-born female director has perfectly captured the spirit of American masculinity and the sadness that can stem from it. It’s a testament not only to Zhao’s skill, but to the idea that your birthplace, race, sex—whatever it may be—doesn’t preclude you from masterfully telling a story outside your personal experience.

At the age of 35, Zhao has achieved something here that few directors manage in a lifetime. The Rider hits every note, providing a beautiful, at times haunting, portrait of a man coming to terms with loss in its many forms. But more than that, The Rider is about how to move forward.

The Rider
Director: Chloé Zhao
Starring: Brady Jandreau, Tim Jandreau, Lilly Jandreau
Rated: R
Theater: Now open, Edina Cinema