‘The Rider’ is Poetry on Screen

“The Rider” opens this weekend in selective cities. If it’s screening in your area, don’t miss it.

The Rider

What is a cowboy to do if he cannot live the cowboy life again? Too remote? Substitute ‘cowboy’ with any other activities you love to do, or a role that defines you. Take that away, and what do you have left?

The film focuses on the struggles of a rodeo star and expert horse trainer Brady Blackburn as he rebuilds his life and identity after a severe head injury. Upon the prognosis of his doctor, Brady should never go back to riding and rodeo again, for another injury would be fatal.

“The Rider” is an American feature, unique in its subject matter while its director is an unlikely candidate to share the insight. Chloé Zhao was born in Beijing, had studied in London, then Massachusetts and New York. “The Rider” is her second feature. In her short directorial career, she has gone to Cannes twice, nominated in 2015 for the Caméra d’Or (“Golden Camera”), Cannes’ award for the best first feature film, and winning The CICAE Art Cinema Award in 2017 with “The Rider”. That is, among other international accolades. Zhao is an exemplar of a global citizen in filmmaking.

Chloé Zhao

The actors for “The Rider” exude authenticity, for they are actual cowboys and their family, all playing themselves. Brady Jandreau takes the role of Brady Blackburn, reflecting his real-life persona, a cowboy who is much admired and respected in the rodeo community. His father Tim and sister Lily form the Blackburn family in the film. Zhao’s directorial skills shine forth as she leads the non-actors in front of the camera, capturing them in their natural speech and actions, in particular, offering viewers realistically the dexterity involved in the wrangling work. But the film goes much deeper than the actions.

Recovering from the near-fatal injury pits Brady into a precarious existence and conflicting relationship with his father Wayne (Tim Jandreau). As a tough cowboy himself, Wayne had all along brought Brady up to be resilient and competitive, but now father had to dissuade son from the risky pursuit of bronco riding and rodeo activities. Nursing a wounded body and a tormented mind, Brady has to deal with the painful task of redefining himself. Temporarily working in a supermarket and wearing a store uniform makes Brady a displaced person, a persona out of meaningful context, both to himself and to those who recognize him as they come into the store.

While there are tense undercurrents with his dad, Brady cherishes the intimate bond with his sister Lily (Lily Jandreau), who expresses herself from her own peculiar, internal world. Kudos to Zhao for casting the real-life brother and sister in the film, they need not be experienced actors to conjure up some genuine, moving scenes.

Much of the film’s effectiveness goes to the inspiring cinematography, exposing quietly Brady’s tormented soul. The opening sequence sets the stage right away with riveting close-ups of a horse and its breathing. As the camera turns from beast to man, we see the extent of the injury Brady sustains as he gets out of bed and follows the routine needed to care for his own body, striving to return to a past life and regain some sense of normalcy.

In other sections of the film, the camera pans the vast landscape of the South Dakotan plains with a tiny figure that is Brady walking or riding through. “The Rider” is visual poetry on a subject that is seldom explored, and cinematographer Joshua James Richards is most effective in transposing Brady’s internal quest lyrically on screen: “A horse’s purpose is to run in the prairies; a cowboy’s is to ride.”

Brady’s good friend Lane Scott (Lane Scott) is a painful reminder of the risks a cowboy takes. Paralyzed and brain damaged after a fall in a rodeo event, Scott now communicates barely by spelling out words one letter at a time signing with his fingers. Poignantly, Zhao depicts Brady’s every visit with Lane in the hospital as an encounter of love and hope without sentimentality.

Zhao is nuanced and eloquent in creating impressionistic scenes. And when horse and man are juxtaposed in such intimacy, the parallel is striking. As Brady puts it, when a horse is badly hurt it has to be put down, that is the humane thing to do; when a cowboy is badly hurt, he has to continue to live, for that is what humans are supposed to do. As we come to the turning point of the film towards the end, the presence of family love and support appear to be the key to moving on.

A rare gem of a film. Watch it with a quiet heart.

~ ~ ~ ~ Ripples



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If she’s not birding by the Pond, Arti’s likely watching a movie, reading, or writing a review. Creator of Ripple Effects, bylines in Asian American Press, Vague Visages, Curator Magazine.

10 thoughts on “‘The Rider’ is Poetry on Screen”

  1. Thank you for bringing this movie to my attention. It is on our ‘to do’ list! I spent many years riding horses and showing in local horse shows. And also skiing in the Rocky Mountains. Every single rider (and skier) will have an injury at some point in their athletic journey. A sensitive story about a decision to end a beloved activity —touched me. What do you do, or who are you when you have to end a part of your life that brought joy and closeness with nature, and defined who you were for a long time? This is a profoundly difficult transition and it seems like a movie that honors this subject.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Heather,

      You’ve grasped the gist of it so well, and I’m sure your own experience of riding and handling horses will enhance your appreciation of the film. As this is an independent production on a smaller scale, it probably will be screened at some arthouse or indie cinemas and not your Cineplex. Do seek it out. You might even need to drive a bit further to see it. No matter, I think it will be worth your travel. 🙂


  2. Thanks for the recommendation- this sounds like one to watch for. I’d be interested to see how the feel of the film works with people who LIVE this sort of life playing the parts- probably better than it would with Hollywood types, I’d guess 🙂 (Though it also sounds like I should only watch with tissues…)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Anne,

      You’re right about that, its realistic or naturalistic style is impressive. The real life characters are exactly that, true to life, credits to the director Chloé Zhao. Not only that, she handles the subject matter without sentimentality. I’d say, no need for tissues, but then again, that’s just me. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

    1. I first saw it at NYFF last Sept. Then it went on to various FF after that and gained more accolades. I’ve checked for you, the closest to your area would be Ann Arbor. 🙂


  3. Hello. I was thinking about some of the good movies I’ve seen this year, and had forgotten about this one. Overall, I think that 2018 has been a strong year for movies. Possibly my fave flick this year is American Animals.

    Neil S.


    1. Neil,

      Welcome to the Pond and thanks for throwing in your two pebbles to make some ripples. I hope you’ll find some more 2018 favorites in my blog. Also, I would include Free Solo in that list. (Have read your post and know you like it) I’ve included some other perspectives in my review of Free Solo (my current post). Maybe you’d like to throw in your two pebbles there as well. 🙂


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