Simplicity is not in vogue among today’s filmmakers, but The Rider is so consistently good that it has wowed critics and audiences on the film festival circuit. It has also accumulated an impressive number of awards. Now that it’s in theaters I urge you to join its many champions; just don’t approach it with outsized expectations.
The protagonist is a young man who has been working the rodeo circuit for most of his life. An accident has left him with staples in his skull and the inability to ride, let alone engage in competition. A taciturn Westerner, he internalizes his problems, especially as this deals with male pride and an understandable fear of what the future may hold. He lives a hardscrabble existence with his macho father and his loving but mentally impaired sister on a ranch in South Dakota.
What will he do now? What kind of life does he have to look forward to? Exploring the answers to those questions could lead some storytellers into quicksand, wallowing in anger, self-pity, or deep, deep melancholy. Writer-director Chloe Zhao does none of those things. She has great empathy for her characters and doesn’t pull any punches. She simply tells the truth in an unpretentious manner that tends to cloak the artfulness of her approach. She first gained notice with her debut feature Songs My Brothers Taught Me in 2015.
If the performances by the nonprofessionals who appear on camera seem unforced and naturalistic, that’s one more reason to admire Zhao’s achievement. Brady Jandreau is essentially playing himself, which is much easier said than done. Zhao met him before he experienced a rodeo accident in real life and wrote the screenplay around him. His sister and father also portray themselves and you’d never know they were new to acting.
The Rider doesn’t have any great revelations and never resorts to melodrama. It’s a solid character portrait set out West, where cinematographer Joshua James Richards ably captures the harsh beauty of the landscape. Chloe Zhao is clearly a talent worth watching. If you don’t see The Rider in the quiet of a theater you’ll be cheating yourself—and regretting, later on, that you didn’t catch onto this rising star at the turning point of her career.