** (out of 4)
At a time when the concept of retirement has become increasingly, scarily flexible, Chloé Zhao’s The Rider provides an apt reminder that not everyone necessarily has the luxury of choosing when to quit. The film’s protagonist, a 20-something named Brady (Brady Jandreau), is a Lakota cowboy who’s spent his whole life riding horses; thanks to his rodeo exploits, in fact, he’s become a bit of a celebrity in his South Dakotan community. Yet after falling off his horse during a competition, Brady suffers a TBI that throws him into a three-day coma – and when he wakes up, he’s told that he can never ride horses ever again. (If that doesn’t sound depressing enough, consider that it all happened to Jandreau in real life.)
In several respects, The Rider definitely deserves the considerable acclaim it’s been getting from critics. The brooding cinematography, for one, does an excellent job conveying the sense of aimlessness that permeates Brady’s life post-accident – and as in last month’s Lean on Pete, the discontinuous editing ensures that the narrative never feels artificial or predetermined. Most importantly, Zhao should be commended for her empathetic portrayal of Native Americans; her work honestly speaks to the issues facing Brady’s community (e.g. alcoholism, poverty) without ever veering into the condescension and stereotyping you see in mainstream films.
Despite its numerous strengths, however, The Rider is eventually undermined by two major problems. To begin with, the film shares a discomfortingly large number of similarities with Zhao’s first movie, 2015’s Songs My Brothers Taught Me. Both works, after all, are distinguished by documentary-esque portrayals of daily life on reservations, protagonists who can’t figure out their purpose in life, male characters who confront the hollowness of traditional conceptions of masculinity, and meditations on the South Dakotan landscape. (The films even share the same flagrant stylistic defect: in both, Zhao inexplicably inserts mushy background music into the last five minutes.) Far from breaking any new ground, then, The Rider often feels redundant, as though you were merely watching deleted scenes from Songs.
On an intrinsic level, moreover, The Rider also suffers from a severe case of thematic monotony. When it comes down to it, a lot of what you see on screen really just advances some variation of the same basic message: Brady likes horses, but he feels emasculated because he can’t ride them anymore. Generally speaking, to be sure, Zhao doesn’t sentimentalize her depiction of Brady’s anguish, and the film’s sobriety comes in welcome contrast to the histrionics of some of its genre predecessors (e.g. The Wrestler). Yet in the end, this attitude shift does nothing to offset The Rider’s underlying vacuity. Zhao’s insights into wounded male pride never really evolve beyond the rudimentary formulation I laid out three sentences back – and as a result, you’ll likely find the overall film to be repetitive to the point of frustration.
If you’re a regular reader of TFW, you’ll know that this is usually the point in my reviews where I describe how the actors “redeem” the director’s errors. Here, however, that qualification only proves partially true. The acting in The Rider is certainly exceptional: even though Jandreau doesn’t have any previous film experience, he demonstrates a remarkable capacity for nonverbal expression. Yet while Zhao was able to harness untrained actors to great effect back in Songs, she conversely puts Jandreau in the service of a storyline that’s so limited in vision that his performance ends up going to waste. All we can do now, sadly, is hope that Zhao rediscovers her footing before her next project – and thereby avoids becoming the indie world’s latest one-hit wonder.
The Rider (2017)
Starring: Brady Jandreau, Tim Jandreau, Lilly Jandreau
Running Time: 103 minutes
MPAA Rating: R, “for language and drug use.”
Produced by: Chloé Zhao, Mollye Asher, Sacha Ben Harroche
Written and Directed by: Chloé Zhao