By: Henry J. Fromage (Two Beers) –
The two movies about the same hyper-specific thing in one year bit that often occurs may have reached its zenith this year with Lean on Pete and now The Rider both examining working poverty in the modern American West by way of a boy and his horse narrative.
I’ll take it over “We’re friends that bang” as a plot any day.
The Rider stars Brady Jandreau as essentially himself (one Brady Blackburn), a rodeo star who’s cracked his skull and is staring down an uncertain future with strict medical orders to never ride, much less rodeo, again. His no-nonsense, somewhat irresponsible dad Tim, likely autistic sister Lilly, friends, neighbors, and mentor, bull-riding superstar, and now paralyzed buddy Lane Scott all star as essentially themselves as well.
Director Claire Zhou has been steadily gaining acclaim since last year’s Cannes Film Festival for this patient, minutely detailed, and emotionally powerful near-documentary approach, which hits like a freight train in key moments but always leaves you with the hopefulness and strength these real people display despite difficult situations and circumstances. Oberst and I have actually visited Pine Ridge Reservation, where this is unshowily set, and even the hour or so we spent there made it clear it’s a desperate, but like the harsh but beautiful Black Hills around it, people like Brady and his family persevere. Watching him tame a wild young horse in real time is nothing short of breathtaking.
DP Joshua James Richards’s wide, gorgeous frames and Nathan Halpern’s understated but ever-present score set the tone and pace of the film as much as Zhou’s precise direction and the expected slow rhythms of this slice of life style of filmmaking. What emerges is something almost mythic, evoking the magnetic draw and inherent contradictions of the American Western mythos as well as any film I’ve perhaps ever seen. No wonder RogerEbert.com’s Godfrey Cheshire calls it the best American film he’s seen in the past year.
Also, I feel like I have to point this out. I don’t care who you are- Brady Jandreau is not hard on the eyes.
The quasi-documentary approach is also the one drawback I found with the movie, as not everyone is as miraculously natural in their line delivery and emoting as Brady Jandreau (in fact, most humans aren’t). A little bit of Lilly goes a lonngg way, too, as effervescent of a presence as she is.
The Rider is a fascinating counterpart to Lean on Pete in the horse movies as economic parables mini-genre, but perhaps surpasses it in its real life detail and delicate but impactful powers of observation.
The Rider (2018) Drinking Game
Take a Drink: for each horse Brady tames and/or rides
Take a Drink: whenever Lilly sings
Take a Drink: every time any character does
Take a Drink: every time Brady’s hand clenches
Take a Drink: whenever anyone watches rodeo footage or goes to the rodeo for real
Do a Shot: when Chekhov’s gun fires