Chloe Zhao’s impressive second film The Rider comes hot on the heels of her critically acclaimed first feature Songs My Brothers Taught Me, a film festival circuit favourite which went on to gain the young director a best picture nod at the 2016 Independent Spirit Awards. Staring real life Cowboy Brady Jandreau as a rodeo rider struggling to come to terms with a recent career ending injury, the film is a beautifully sparse, mournful and subtly acted modern Western which tells an honest story with a huge amount of tenderness and poetic realism.
Former rodeo star Brady Blackburn (Brady Jandreau) lives in the South Dakota desert with his gambling addict father Wayne (Tim Jandreau) and sister Lilly (Lilly Jandreau), a vivacious teenager with learning difficulties. When a life-threatening head injury puts an abrupt end to his burgeoning career, Brady finds himself aimless and depressed about his future prospects. No longer able to ride his horses or even pursue a once lucrative horse-taming enterprise, the young Cowboy soon finds himself drawing parallels between what happened to him and the catastrophic brain injury incurred by his best friend and Rodeoing partner Lane Scott (played by Lane Scott himself ) leaving him paralysed and living in a rehab facility.
Offering a frank and touching character study of the inner struggles of a young man caught between familial duties and the desire to follow his passion, Chloe Zhao is able to tell a story which is both heartening and thought-provoking. Using a stripped-down style and a sparse dialogue, which is delivered in an almost documentary style monotone manner, Zhao shows a huge amount of maturity in her storytelling technique, even if she ultimately can’t resist a degree of artifice in the way the narrative arc is developed.
Managing to strike just the right balance between theme and style, Chloe Zhao offers an expertly shot and beautifully captivating story which isn’t afraid of wearing its heart on its sleeve throughout. The vast South Dakota desert is shot with an expert eye and deft hand, further demonstrating Zhao’s ability to see beyond the obvious and her willingness to constantly challenge herself. And while parallels could be drawn between Valeska Grisebach’s brilliant 2017 film Western, which also starred mostly non professional actors, what makes Zhao’s film feel a little less naturalistic, is her refusal to let the plot develop more freely, resorting instead to a well-packed denouement, which in the end takes some of the realism away from this otherwise stunning production.
The Rider is in cinemas from Friday September 14th.