After lucidly presenting a family drama on an Indian reservation in her debut feature, Songs My Brother Taught Me (Songs My Brothers Taught Me reveals rich, deeply empathetic eye of first-time feature filmmaker), the talented indie filmmaker Chloé Zhao returns to the Badlands of South Dakota to tell another neo-realist tale about a different Native American family. The Rider focuses on a young Dakota Indian rodeo cowboy whose career and passion is threatened following an injury during a bronco riding competition.
As with Songs, Zhao has cast non-actors who live the life they portray on screen. Once again, Zhao’s craft with these actors makes one often wonder during the film if this is a documentary. It takes a special skill to bring the actor out of people willing to share their fallible side allowing for the multi-dimensional character development necessary for a believable and interesting movie. The Rider opens with a man alone, Brady Blackburn (Brady Jandreau). He has a broken head. After waking from a dream featuring intense closeups of a horse, Zhao presents a visceral scene of Brady in his spare, dark bedroom removing a bandage stapled to the side of his head. Jandreau is basically recreating his real-life experience, about two years ago, after a bucking horse threw him at a rodeo and stomped on his skull.
As in his real life, Jandreau plays a frustrated young man driven to return to his passion despite his doctor’s orders and his family’s concern. His real-life father (Tim Jandreau) and sister (Lilly Jandreau) play his family with the added drama that dad is an alcoholic gambler whose lifestyle threatens the family’s ability to pay rent on their trailer. It’s a sad irony captured simply by the majestic depiction of the landscape and Brady’s attempt at carrying on his freelance work as a horse trainer. As in Songs, Zhao captures these people’s connection to the land and open spaces with an ease in narrative that’s purely visual and often shot during the magic hour of dusk.
Zhao also brings back DP Joshua James Richards, who continues to show an amazing eye for capturing the vastness of the plains of South Dakota. The imagery translates to a grand cinematic experience that quietly informs the importance of the land to the identity of these people, not to mention begs for a theatrical presentation. The landscapes feel comforting as well as impressive in opposition to the family’s stifling trailer. Their true home undoubtedly seems to be the land and the wide open spaces of nature. Furthering this is Brady’s interaction with horses, where the actor puts his real-life skills of taming wild horses to work during mesmerizing scenes that no traditional actor could ever no matter their training or the film’s editing.
Though Zhao, who also wrote the film’s screenplay, has not strayed too far from the subjects and place of her debut feature, there’s a more focused growth in storytelling to The Rider. It feels more brisk while never sacrificing the impressionistic quality that was so beguiling about her debut. As she continues to fine tune her craft, Zhao doesn’t sell out a quiet drama the compromises pacing for story. She shows great understanding of how important atmosphere is in allowing the audience to feel something for these people. Though a bit unconventional, The Rider is pure cinema at its finest and is guaranteed to move you.
The Rider runs 104 minutes and is rated R. It opens this Friday, May 11, exclusively in our Miami area at the Miami Beach Cinematheque. Further north, in Broward County, it opens at the Classic Gateway Theatre. For screenings in other parts of the U.S., visit this link and select “Get Tickets.” Sony Pictures Classics sent us an online screener for the purpose of this review.