The Rider is a western that offers the opposite attitude from most alpha -male, macho- driven Westerns, and indeed some today’s of society itself. The attitude of pushing through pain, never thinking about quitting despite drastic circumstances. You aren’t a man if you don’t saddle up.
Brady (real rodeo-rider Brady Blackburn) suffered a severe head injury resulting from a rodeo accident, and after being stitched up, he ‘escapes’ hospital. This seems to be related to the above culture surrounding his life within the horse riding/rodeo circuit and the area in which he lives. The quiet, opening moments of the film depicting the depression he is feeling tell us that despite the impulse to easily escape hospital, the temptation of getting back into the saddle will be a difficult situation to deal with.
Brady’s position forces himself to evaluate his life moving forward. This is influenced by an early scene around a campfire with fellow rodeo rider friends, as he tells of how he was stomped in the head by the horse and the resulting trauma that it caused, ending with him in a coma. After finishing his brief recollection of nearing dying in the hospital, his friends smile as the group begin to trade how many injuries/concussions each have had – they are badges of honour here. It is the perfect scene, and short, to outline the attitude of his fellow riders without telling us overtly.
One rider tells of a time where Brady told him to push through the pain of a rib injury, to keep riding no matter the cost. Awkwardness follows and he challenges Brady, asking if he’ll let his passion slip away just because his head hurts. This is not the first time his masculinity is challenged as this is an environment where that attitude is expected, is seen as necessary, from adult males, especially around the rodeo circuit which Brady has called home.
The film has a smattering of emotional moments that tear at the heart, especially when Brady visits Lane, a friend who was also seriously injured in a rodeo accident, though the way his life took a turn is a life in hell compared to the existence Brady lives each day, as Lane is stuck is a hospital bed barely able to talk or move. This puts Brady’s injury in perspective. It is also telling that none of the group of friends from the earlier scene have visited him, as f he has intentionally left their culture.
This powerful story is non-fiction in a sense, as Chinese director Chloé Zhao has worked with real rodeo riders to create her film, each displaying admirable acting abilities. She is also working with a true story, as Brady Jandreau, who stands out as the titular character, sustained a serious brain injury similar to that depicted. That he takes on this material as an actor is a brave decision and surely is a large influence on why his performance is so gritty, sad, and most importantly, very believable.
The major decision he must make about jumping on a rodeo horse again is an uncertainty for almost the entire length of the film, and Brady is convincing in bringing this onto to the screen, especially during quiet close-ups of his face. That Brady’s dad and sister also play themselves not only enhances the realistic nature of the film, but also the family interactions, especially when his dad is critical of him not wanting to get back on the saddle. As his father is a drunk, Brady takes a special interest in raising his sister who has a learning disability of some sort.
This, and his visits to Lane, depict the humanity within Brady, not to mention the important reality that if one is in pain, they usually have empathy for anyone that is also suffering. This is a fantastic character study and one of the best films of 2018 so far.
Zhao and her DP Joshua James Richards have created a spectacular looking picture, whether it is the rugged land of the west or the incredible landscape images sometimes involving a wondering Brady. The close-up angles used throughout to focus on Brady’s face further cement Jandreau’s acting ability, while other cramped shots of his family’s small trailer are efficient in showing us Brady’s home situation without the need for much, if any, exposition. Brady should receive some attention, as this film has been considered by some as one of the best of the year. No arguments here, this is a powerful film that is hard to fault.
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