SXSW Review: ‘THE RIDER’ – wild horses couldn’t drag you away
Courtney Howard // Film Critic
Extreme sports athletes tempt fate. In the case of rodeo cowboys, they risk everything when they climb on the back of a violent, bucking bull or bronco, sacrificing so much for eight seconds of fame, glory and true happiness. While we’ve seen the sport on the silver screen before, in films like 8 SECONDS, THE COWBOY WAY and THE LONGEST RIDE, we’ve never seen it from the unique psychological perspective of writer-director-producer Chloé Zhao’s THE RIDER. This haunting, fictionalized drama based on true life events is a spiritual, perhaps more understated cousin of THE WRESTLER, handled with a deft, tender touch. There’s a tangible sense of resonance seeing our hero unravel a bittersweet conundrum – and this hero’s journey hits in the center of your gut.
Lakota cowboy Brady Blackburn (Brady Jandreau) has been dealt a devastating blow. During his latest rodeo competition, he suffered a fractured skull after his riled-up bronco bucked him off his saddle, essentially ending his rodeo competition/ horse training career. Not only must he bear a physical reminder, a giant scar angled prominently on the side of his head, he’s also left struggling psychologically and physiologically as his right hand seizes under too much exertion. This forces him to battle against an excess of crumbling emotions as he figures out how to pursue his life’s passion without letting down his gambling-addicted father Wayne (Tim Jandreau) and younger sister Lilly (Lilly Jandreau), who has Asperger’s Syndrome.
One of Brady’s closest pals – the very experienced, talented rider Lane Scott (as himself), who was completely paralyzed after a severe accident – lends a voice of encouragement, but also serves as the film’s striking reminder of the dangers of their passionate drive. Their onscreen time together is representative of the rodeo cowboy strength of spirit and determination. We feel the gravitas of their visits without any added manipulation. Casting Brady and his family to play heightened versions of themselves raises the authenticity of the emotional drive. By placing our hero at the frontlines, seeing his friends and colleagues able to do the very thing he no longer can, Zhao brings the character’s sadness, jealousy and angst into the foreground. She captures the frustrations these men feel no longer being able to live up to the ideal image of a stoic cowboy. She also makes a clear metaphorical connection between a colt that Brady is hired to break and Brady’s defiant temperament that occasionally kicks up. Symbolism can also be found in the horse that has to be euthanized. The push-pull of the portrait the filmmaker paints is filled with vulnerability and pathos.
That’s not to say this is a completely dry, depressing feature. In a few crucial moments, it’s quite the opposite. There’s enough hope to keep this afloat so audiences don’t feel like Brady’s new normal is unrelentingly punishing. He’s able to find joy, hanging with his sassy, equally rebellious sister, whose long-running “gag” is that she’s bra-averse.
Much like THE WRESTLER compels audiences to feel every inch of the protagonist’s pain, so does Zhao’s riveting feature. Both films also exhibit a similar – but never reductive – visual poetry. So by the end, a clearer picture of this lived-in life has developed masterfully.
THE RIDER played SXSW on March 9. It opens in limited release on April 13.