The Rider | Chloé Zhao | NYFF 2017

Director Chloé Zhao’s The Rider is one of the first films I’ve caught at New York Film Festival this year and if there are any films that match the quality of it, we’re in for a good year. Zhao, a Chinese director, wouldn’t have been the obvious candidate to direct a modern western drama, but she captures the spirit with a feeling of authenticity, so much so that this drama almost feels like a documentary at times.

This is no accident as the film takes the real-life bull riding accident of Brady Jandreau and the way that it affects him and his family. Zhao met Brady and his family and learned about their story while filming her first film, Songs My Brothers Taught Me at the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. The events are given a bit of fictionalization by Zhao, who also wrote the script. The line of fiction and reality between the characters and first-time actors isn’t a far one, Brady and his family all use their real-life first names, with their surname Jandreau changed to Blackburn for the film.

When he first meet Brady, he’s literally dreaming about horses. You see, aside from his family, riding horses is the love of his life. It’s his pride and joy, literally everything to him. This all came to an immediate halt after he was viciously thrown off a bull during a riding competition and had his skull crushed by the animal as he was on this ground. We see the character watch the actual video clip of the real-life accident, bringing an extra layer of authenticity to it all. You can see how much it torments Brady because this terrible thing actually did happen to him.

It doesn’t help that he sees reminders of horses and bull riding everywhere that he goes. Some of his friends tell him to brush it off and get back on the saddle, even though doctors warn that one more nasty fall could be the end for him. This is a reminder by seeing the state of existence for his friend and former star rider Lane Scott who is left in a tragic state after a nasty accident that leaves him paralyzed (Scott was a star rider who was tragically hurt in a car accident in real life). He tries to find a middle ground to it all by training horses instead, but he’s internally tormented in doing what it loves, even if it kills him. The only thing preventing him from putting it all on the line is his family. He cares deeply for his sister Lilly (Lilly Jandreau) and the rough love relationship he has with his father Wayne (Tim Jandreau).

The dynamic of putting your passion before your own safety and wellbeing as it’s literally all you have in life reminded me a lot of Darren Aronofsky’s phenomenal 2008 film The Wrestler. The beauty of Zhao’s work is that me, someone who has lived his whole life on the East coast, as far removed from the cowboy circuit as they come, found this story totally enthralling and beautifully moving, to the point where I was moved to tears. You see, the beauty of good cinema is that it can immerse you into worlds that you never would come across in life and make it wholly relatable and that’s what Zhao does in masterful fashion.

Credit to her boyfriend and cinematographer Joshua James Richards whose beautiful frames often exist as oil paintings, a perfect cinematic partner to the lush synth score of composer Nathan Halpern. Their work together capturing the tone and mood of these beautiful landscapes allow Zhao to offer a patient approach of wistful storytelling, that has this floaty Terrence Malick approach that may not be a match for all viewers.

But I was totally absorbed by this simple story of having to swallow your pride and realize that sometimes you have to give up what you love in order to be there for those who you really love. It’s a universal, American theme, one that Zhao captures in the most beautiful compelling fashion that is utterly moving, sincere and essential.

Rating: 9.0/10