The Rider: Extraordinary Drama Set in the World of Rodeo

Blurring the line between documentary and fiction, Chloé Zhao won the best picture prize at Cannes’ Director’s Fortnight last year with ‘The Rider,’ a hard-hitting look at the world of rodeo exploring its tough realities free of stereotypes. The Chinese born, California based filmmaker has crafted one of the films of the year mirroring the real life experience of young cowboy Brady Jandreau in a work which boast both moving intimacy and stunning beauty.

The Rider begins with a nightmare of his main character, dreaming about horses. Shortly we see a grim head scar and find out he has just had a serious rodeo accident, needing surgery to place a metallic plate in his skull. Doctors will inform him his rodeo days should be over, but Brady can’t let go. From that shattering beginning we start knowing more about his humble family -performed by his dad and sister in real life- the tensions with his father, an ex alcoholic with money problems, and the affectionate care for a sister with learning difficulties. We are also introduced to his best mate Lane Scott, also a former bull driver and a role model of sorts for Brady, now lying in a hospital bed after another accident left him paralyzed for life.

Zhao shows a particularly compassionate gaze to describe the life of a deprived community that reminds to fellow US indie directors such as Debra Granik (Leave no Trace), avoiding the typical clichés of winners and losers in what is often despectively referred to as “white trash” America, to unveil the human dimension of their characters and the everyday struggles in their lives. She excels at depicting their ordinary endeavours with great intimacy and realism. But she adds a completely different dimension and a strong sense of place by using remarkable cinematography to capture the striking grandeur of the American landscape.

She also shows great talent to get the most of her non professional actors. Brady Jandreau’s shy and humble manner fills the screen with his presence. His scenes taming wild horses are among the most memorable in a piece of work that impresses at many different levels, perfectly capturing the communion between the young cowboy and his animal. Jandreau’s reinterpreting his own life is immensely touching as the story follows him holding on to the last hope of continuing with his passion. We feel the pride and preeminent position that the figure of a rodeo driver enjoys in his community. With no other skills or job experience, it seems that for him riding is the only alternative to a future of menial jobs filling supermarket shelves, as well as a strong symbol of masculinity and endurance, all of which also prompts his inner debate between following the doctor’s advice or ignoring the dangers and surrender to a peer pressure whose mantra encourage him not give up on his dreams and “ride through the pain.”

The Rider’s story works like a reverse coming of age dram, in which the young lead, just after having established his way in the world, is hit by one of life’s cruel blows and forced to retrace his steps to find a new one. Its simplicity and honest approach is as moving as unsentimental. With this, her second feature, Chloé Zhao has crafted a very special film, which after her equally acclaimed debut ‘Songs My Brother Taught Me’ (2011) establishes her as one of the most unique new talents in American cinema; one that we will be eagerly following. ★★★★★

The Rider is released on September the 14th in the UK

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