The cowboy and his horse. The two go together, inseparable, one unit. The cowboy whistles and the horse, distinctive and loyal, arrives. The cowboy drops out the window, off the veranda, and off they go, tearing across the scrubby plains toward the girl, the villain, home. Centaur-like, when he’s riding, the cowboy’s lower extremities disappear into the charging animal body, their movements fluid and sympathetic. The horse, with its long face and wide, expressive eyes, its feminine mane, is a companion and an assistant that can be loved and confided in, driven into the ground and mourned. Put out of its misery, oddly delicate when injured a particular way. A cowboy’s job is to ride.
Chloé Zhao’s melancholy, beautifully photographed new feature, The Rider, shows us what it’s like to lose this connection, and the kind of deeply empathic work that’s necessary to make it. Following a devastating head injury suffered in competition, rodeo rider Brady Blackburn—seemingly barely out of his teens—is forced to take a hiatus from riding that may be, should be, permanent. But his whole life has been horses. Taught to train them by his parents and having learned much more from his own time on their backs, Brady is renowned not just for his fearlessness, but also for his ability to break, even recuperate, the most recalcitrant animals. But break, as we see in several scenes, is too harsh a word. Rather, Brady’s methods display masterful gentility, an approach to every horse, particularly the most unfamiliar, as a calm and patient friend. By contrast, the violently bucking broncos of the rodeo, pinned between barriers and worked into a lather before their eight second performances, have little sense of personality. They are abstract motion, forces of thrill and danger for which Brady still longs.
Where in the typical Western we rarely fear for the rider unless he’s being shot at, here, the intimacy of Joshua James Richards’ vérité camerawork emphasizes the difference in scale between man and beast, the distance to the ground, the proximity of a jittery leg ready to kick, the delicacy of the broken, but determined rider, who in his own mind and in our eye, if not our gut, is in his natural state in the saddle. The tension of the simplest of falls is the tension in the film. That and whether Brady can turn his talent for taming on himself.
The film’s various approaches to authenticity are key to the powerful connection we feel to its main character, a man struggling in a rough and reticent world that might otherwise feel closed to us. Sitting by the campfire, trading concussion stories with friends, Brady narrates his last ride in a near-unintelligible mumble of rider’s jargon, and while we appreciate, on the one hand, the documentary feel of listening in on an insider’s account, we also feel close enough to Brady already, to the character’s internal struggle, to see past his affected, macho dispassion to the heart of his developing fear, his sense of being reduced among men. That actor Brady Jandreau’s real father and relentlessly charming autistic sister play his family here further deepens our sense of the character’s truth, his honest accessibility that likely wouldn’t have been achieved with an entirely professional cast.
The sum of Zhao’s creative choices make for a deeply moving film, uniquely polished and subtle, exposing another facet in our still-developing image of the West.
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