Brady (Brady Jandreau) is a rodeo rider who has recently had a fall that resulted in a severe head injury. Now he’s barred from riding, let alone participating in rodeos. But if he can’t do that, he really doesn’t know who he is at all. Drifting between family and friends and the odd job he can do, Brady has to try and figure out if rodeo is worth the risk now that it’s even higher.
I very much loved Zhao’s first film, Songs My Brothers Taught Me, so I knew I had to see The Rider, even though it meant adding an extra film to my already full /slash Film Festival schedule. And that little trip away from the festival was an excellent choice on my part as The Rider is a beautiful, sad and touching film that I wouldn’t have wanted to miss for the world.
As with Zhao’s first film, she seamlessly blends reality and fiction. We have unstaged locations and actors who play more or less fictionalized versions of themselves in a sequence of events that didn’t happen but could happen like it. It is the perfect mix of ethnography and (fictional) storytelling that is incredibly insightful.
In this way, Zhao gives us access to a world that would remain otherwise closed to us, or to me as a white European in any case: the world of rodeos and Lakota cowboys. I feel like I got a very sensitive and delicate look Brady and his environment and I really, really appreciated it.
But The Rider isn’t just a vehicle for insight and learning. It is also simply a beautiful film with stunning cinematography and a great soundtrack that tells a touching story about a lost young man who really needs to figure things out. He needs to decide whether he can or should play it safe or if he should pursue his passion. Jandreau is a fantastic protagonist, his presence only rivaled by Cat Clifford who is in just a few scenes but he makes them count.
The Rider feels like a piece of magic, a film that shows what cinema is made for. It is absolutely wonderful.