After enduring the wispy itinerance of Charlie Plummer in Lean on Pete, the prospect of sitting through another ambient horse-and-his-boy neo-Western made me clench my butt cheeks and groan — The Rider? What on earth was this? A festival-circuit darling, that's what, which purported to tell the story of a quote-unquote "young cowboy" learning what it means to quote-unquote "be a man" in the quote-unquote "heartland of America."
Despite early misgivings, I absolutely loved it. It was, for me, the best movie of the year thus far with no close runner up. Hands down. It's a gem. Directed by Chloe Zhao and starring non-actors playing versions of themselves, this gut-wrenching story of South Dakotan rodeo riders is as real as it ever gets. Deftly straddling a line between narrative and documentary filmmaking, Zhao crafts a film that's breathtaking to look at and unrelenting in its emotional force. I've never seen anything quite like it and seldom have been so thoroughly moved by multiple performances. They may not even be classified as "performances," come to think of it. The Rider is a unique and wondrous viewing experience, and it opens Friday at the Cedar Lee.
In the opening scene, young Brady Blackburn (played by Brady Jandreau) examines and cleanses a gnarly head wound in the campsite stillness of his weakly lit trailer. The injury is obviously serious, and we soon learn that it was sustained at a recent rodeo.
Brady had become a minor celebrity for his exploits on bucking broncos, but the neurological damage from his injury ruins his grip. His hand tenses up unexpectedly and Brady senses, though can't bring himself to admit, that he won't be able to ride anymore. It's tragic watching that realization unfold over the course of the film. He becomes a teenager with zero prospects. All his best friends still ride, and they subscribe to the macho notion that riding through injuries is just what one is supposed to do.
In an early scene, Brady and his buddies sit around a fire and recount some of their injuries in a conversation that feels both exquisitely edited, but also pure and unhurried, full of slang and fraternal intimacy. These are not clumsy attempts by screenwriters to capture the way teenagers of the Dakotas communicate. This is just them communicating — it's a weirdly hypnotic, beautiful interlude.
But Brady knows the perils of rodeo injuries all too well. In addition to his own injury, his best friend Lane Scott (played by Lane Scott himself) has been paralyzed and incapacitated. The revelation of Lane's condition, and Brady's visits with Lane, are some of the toughest and most striking scenes in a film exploding with them.
Every decision that Brady must make — from pawning his saddle to provide for his father, a drunk, and his special-needs sister, to getting a job at a local grocery store, to even attending nearby rodeos — is freighted with the certainty that he could have been great. And watching this remarkable young man try to find hope and purpose in a life whose one glorious path has been foreclosed is simply stunning cinema.
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