THE RIDER: A Cowboy’s Search for Identity

Chloé Zhao’s second feature is a beautiful meditation on deferred dreams

Watching the lead training horses in The Rider, I marveled at his natural touch with the animals. I shouldn’t have been too surprised to see the actor listed as the official horse trainer in the film’s credits … Chloé Zhao’s second film casts Brady Jandreau and his family in a story inspired by the former rodeo rider’s real life experience. Jandreau plays Brady Blackburn, a young man injured by a bucking bronco, now questioning his identity. If he can’t ride horses, as he’s done all his previous life, who is he? What is there for him to do?

As Brady endures recovery, he argues with his ne’er-do-well father Wayne (played by dad Tim Jandreau) and supports his autistic teen sister Lilly (Lilly Jandreau). “Sometimes dreams aren’t meant to be,” Wayne says in attempt to console his son. Despite advice from his doctor, Brady finds it difficult to stop working with horses. His connection to the animals is evident from the start; he dreams about his horse (Gus), cares for the animal’s wounds, and mourns the loss when Wayne sells Gus.

The Rider soulfully captures the personal distress of Brady’s situation and the limitations of his life in rural South Dakota. The way Zhao and her crew — working on a limited budget, as the film was funded mostly by the director herself — film the humans and the horses they work with imbues the narrative feature with deep emotion. Even side characters are allowed depth and humanity. The job counselor Brady consults tells him he looks like his mom. A couple of kids ask for a picture with Brady during his shift at the grocery store, hoping he’ll be back in the saddle soon.

The manner in which Zhao’s film provides space and voice for disabled performers is distinctly refreshing. In an episode of The Business, the director remarks that she wouldn’t write specific lines for Lilly; the teenager used her own natural phrasing to get ideas across. Neither Lilly or Brady’s close friend Lane are objectified to gain sympathy, instead appearing as the real people they are, dearly loved by Brady.

Careful cinematography and a soft-spoken lead make The Rider meditative and thought-provoking. Jandreau is raw and open in his portrayal of a man suffering personal crisis, stubborn to a point that one wonders how far beyond his limits the character might push himself. The quiet beauty of the film left me awestruck. Given the matter-of fact quality of the storytelling and the performances by these first-time actors, the viewer becomes hesitant to leave the world Zhao has captured on film.

The Rider opens at select theaters in Austin on Friday, April 27.

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