The Rider (2018)

“No more riding. No more rodeos.”

Without relying on modern-movie magic’s epic foolery, The Rider instills in us a great sense of poetic realism. Not much happens. Even less is said by way of spoken word than through the sincere, thoughtful action. And despite its remarkable naturalism, this film transposes truths so heavy and bitterly honest that they’re able to sink a light into the darkest, most downtrodden corners of our souls. As the title indicates, this film deals with a man’s singularly branded identity, bred to be at the mercy of a strong horse, and the bareback plot takes us along on a symbiotic journey that’s both casual and confrontational. The Rider is, without a doubt, the best American film I’ve seen so far in 2018.

With a single line of dialogue, The Rider showcases it’s unbridled idealism all while challenging this principle through real world circumstance. “I believe God gives each of us a purpose. For the horse it’s to run across the prairie. For a cowboy it’s to ride.” It’s said in the South Dakota Badlands by the fractured psyche of Brady Blackburn (Brady Jandreau), a young man who awakes on his twin size bed in great pain. He’s a two-face, the right half of his head shaved down to the skull and stapled in one plunging seam, literally looking himself in the mirror to confront an identity in crisis. Bucked off and stomped by the power of a horse’s hoof, the once promising rodeo star must make a decision: die young doing what you love or live longer for those you love. It’s not an easy decision.

Brady’s father Wayne (Tim Jandreau) buys and sells and trains horses. He’s months late on their trailer’s rent, he’s a frequent drinker without becoming a mean drunk, and he’s prone to wasting money at the slots. Wayne’s the kind of man we’ve all met before and the type so many of us become; his deflated spirit coasts through life, wishing and hoping to luckily win the lottery. Brady’s sister Lilly (Lilly Jandreau) requires patience; her Asperger’s can be challenging and comforting, and The Rider depicts this family’s interactions with great authenticity, entirely because this is a real portrait of their own truth through the lens of fiction. They are actual kin, playing a slightly different version of their family, and this decision to allow ordinary folks to embody and fully realize their best and worst selves on-screen is perhaps the most empowering creative decision you’ll come across in 2018. To call it stunning doesn’t do the picture’s pragmatism enough justice.

As I sat watching The Rider – the rare movie that rarely moves yet manages to transport your spirit nonetheless – I couldn’t help but question the difference between destiny and purpose. In this story, purpose is what we feel called to do internally, while destiny is what we’re commanded to endeavor externally by the grace of God. These men pray for the safety of themselves and others. They mourn the oft cruel unpredictability of the forces of nature. And they tattoo themselves with the pain that they feel (in Brady’s case, it’s an image of a disabled friend riding in front of a cross…to them and to him, rodeo is a foundation of faith). The beauty of The Rider is in its handling of a universal theme through a distinct story. Cowboys are few and far between anymore. Hardly any of us have lived this lifestyle. And yet we all know what it’s like to contemplate giving up on a dream, to settle for less than we imagined, and to feel empty inside. Fragility and emotional vacancy can be expressed in ways that transcend language and location. The Rider does so with ease.

In a tech-driven country so saturated by the insincerity of prom proposals and the manufactured gender reveals, by the staged nature of photographs and the filters that fake them, and no less by the obsessive need to share our lives rather than fully living them, The Rider finds a way to observe from up close and far away. Joshua James Richards’ wide establishing shots are paintings. His intense close proximity with the animals blends us into the intimate landscape. And once again, Chloé Zhao returns to the Western Frontier, and compared to her previous outing, here she serves up a film that isn’t a harsh cultural critique, but something more straightforward and honed. Less instructional and more intrinsically instinctual. The Rider speaks to us with a unique voice and it elevates its all-inclusive doctrine through the language of silence. What a joy it is, I believe, to watch a film and know what people are thinking and feeling, not because they tell us, but because it bleeds from their open-hearted beings, and that we bleed with them.

“I couldn’t imagine doin’ anything else.”

Rating: 5 out of 5

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