By Tracy Wang
Based on Brady Jandreau’s experience as a rodeo horseman and his near fatal head injury, ‘The Rider’ takes us on a ride with Brady Blackburn, a rodeo champion who can no longer compete, and asks us the most unthinkable question: what can we do after we can no longer do what we love?
A cowboy rider who has sustained a similar injury as Brady Blackburn in the film, Brady Jandreau has been the source material for director Chloé Zhao to develop a film on rodeo riders, and the film even has Jandreau’s father and sister to star as his family in it.
A film with a strong meditating vibe, ‘The Rider’ is set directly after Blackburn sustained his head injury, and we follow him around on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota to find out what he can do after his life as a rodeo rider ended. Hanging out with his cowboy friends in the dark, working at a supermarket to earn some cash, and taking care of his horse, all seem trivial under the vast sky, and on the seemingly boundless land, but all these daily-life chores strike the right heart strings.
The film does not have a grand or busy plot, where we are constantly being thrown around by the plot points, but the quiet emotional impact it constantly sends our way makes it a worthwhile journey. Even though the injury has taken what he loves from him, and this storyline can almost guarantee a film that tries too hard to sell the emotions, ‘The Rider’ does just the opposite; it does not make us cry out loud, but it successfully makes us weep inside.
Director Zhao has magically made the scenery a part of the story, as we witness time and time again how Blackburn has lost his way in this vast land. A man who is stripped off his passion, his job, and his dream, Blackburn no longer knows what he can or cannot do, and the land seems to have swallowed him whole. As the lens moves around on the vast land, we can almost feel the sunlight warming our fingers, and feel the wind coming our way.
The magic of this film remains on how it never bites us directly, but it slowly chews through our facade, and lashes out in the most daily-life scenes. When Apollo, the horse that he is bonding and training, has to be put down, because of a leg injury, we almost want to avert our eyes, and just not watch the outcome, but little do we know that that is not the scene that bites the hardest.
Since we know it is also a movie about horses, we expect to hear some lines that defend the welfare of the horses, but what the movie promises is candidness we rarely find in films. How Blackburn compares himself directly with a horse is unexpected, but powerful, and when he contemplates how a horse in his condition would be put to death, we are chilled to the bones. The hierarchy of human beings and the rest of the animals is stitched to our minds, and we are left to taste the bitterness of the inequality.
‘The Rider’ is a film that promises a smooth ride visually, but a turbulent one emotionally. In a story of how a cowboy rider has to give up rodeo because of an injury, we are reminded of our own passion and the times when we have to give up something not because we want to but because we have to. In the end of the day, director Zhao has given us a poetic gift of a way forward in the face of losing what we are born to love and do.