The Rider Review

Brady Jandreau in “The Rider.”

A real-life South Dakota cowboy stars in a film based on his personal story in Chloé Zhao’s “The Rider,” an exquisitely shot portrait that shows just how powerful film can be when it blurs the line between fiction and reality.

Brady Jandreau plays Brady Blackburn, a rodeo rider and horse trainer (like Jandreau) who broke his skull in a riding accident (like Jandreau). Jandreau’s father (Tim) and sister (Lilly), play his father and sister. His friends play his friends, including Lane Scott, a bull rider injured in a car accident recovering from a devastating brain injury. Jandreau’s story might have made a compelling documentary, but it’s even more riveting as a feature film with Zhao’s patient hand to guide the performances and her eye to craft moving imagery.

That decision to use truthful pieces to create a more realistic film echoes a similar 2017 festival circuit film, Joshua Z. Weinstein’s “Menashe,” which tailored its narrative to align with the real-life story of its star, Menashe Lustig, an ultra-Orthodox Jew in New York City trying to keep custody of his son. Jandreau,lives in a similarly insular community, the Pine Ridge Reservation, so it makes sense that both filmmakers used the faces of these communities to tell these stories.

Conversely, it would be extremely difficult to get someone who is not an actor to act convincingly in a story that’s not their own. Zhao and Jandreau work beautifully together in what must have been a continuous back-and-forth exchange of truth and artistic suggestion for Jandreau to give such a mesmerizing performance. We see and are moved by the authenticity of him as we would the subject of a documentary, but he also builds his characters and tells the story though his performance.

Undoubtedly, Brady the character’s dilemma shares a lot with Jandreau’s personal narrative, which really fuels the performance. Wanting to ride horses and compete in rodeo competitions despite common sense telling you it’s not okay seems like a cowboy-specific crisis, but feeling a sense of purpose and having the thing in which you feel that purpose taken away from you is something relatively simple to relate to.

Zhao’s script conveys that core principle of the story, but being able to show scenes in which Jandreau tames horses (for real) and visits a friend recovering from a devastating injury (for real) drives home these ideas visually in ways that traditional fictional films with name actors simply can’t. That’s the power of “The Rider.” Coupled with gorgeous sunrise and sunset shots of beautiful South Dakota land, it’s a small-scale film with a tremendous artistic impact.

4.5/5 Stars

The Rider
Written and Directed by Chloé Zhao
Starring: Brady Jandreau


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