by Hope Madden
The classic western, the cowboy story, sings a song of bruised manliness. Chasing destiny, sacrificing family and love for a solitary life, building a relationship with land and beast—there may be no cinematic genre more full of romance.
This is the hardscrabble poetry that fills writer/director Chloe Zhao’s latest, The Rider.
Set on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, the film shadows talented rodeo rider and horse trainer Brady (Brady Jandreau), who’s suffered a near-fatal head injury with lingering seizures and must now grapple with his future and his identity.
It’s a classic cowboy tale, really: will he give up cowboying because it will surely kill him, or will he get back up on that horse?
But what Zhao’s film avoids is sentimentality and sheen. With a hyper-realistic style showcasing performances by non-actors who lived a very similar story, she simultaneously celebrates and inverts the romance that traditionally fuels this kind of film.
Elegant and cinematic, but at the same time a spontaneous work of verite, The Rider breaks its own cinematic ground.
Images of real poverty butt up against lonesome vistas, a sole horse breaking up the line of the sunset. There’s no glossing over the realities Brady is facing when picking through what kind of future is left for him if he’s not a cowboy. The story is even clearer about what’s ahead of him if he is.
The Rider’s subject matter authenticity gives it the feel of a documentary. But because of the way Zhao plays with light, uses music, and fills the screen with the desolate beauty of the American plains, the film qualifies as a sleepy epic.
Zhao’s work is unmistakably indie, not a born crowd-pleaser, but beautifully lifelike. She has given new life to a genre, creating a film about the loss of purpose and, in that manly world of the cowboy, masculinity.