SXSW Film Review – The Rider
Once in a while, I will go blind into a screening. Sometimes it works wonderfully, and other times, it does not. Having not much to go on except for a photo of a young man and a horse and the title, The Rider, I took a blind chance on my first film of SXSW 2018. It paid off in spades as the film slowly reveals its subject and the world in which he lives.
The Rider has already made appearances at many film festivals and now has a Spirit Award for the writer and director Chloé Zhao. The film came about differently. Zhao met Brady Jandreau, who plays the main character, Brady Blackburn, in the film, and built the film around his real experience as a bronco rider and the injury that changed his life. The story revolves around Brady Blackburn and a near-fatal bronco riding accident. With a major injury to his head and his brain, Brady must awaken himself to a new life. He is frustrated and stubborn, as would we all be if we were told we could no longer do the thing in our lives that makes us whole. The film is slow realization through trials and tribulations to what is most important in life.
The echo of a horse, powerful and beautiful, awakens Brady from sleep. He is dazed as he walks around his space with a bandage on his head. Changing the dressing and preparing to take a shower, there is a significant gash that has been stitched up. He lives on a small ranch, inside of a rented trailer. It is not much to look at, but there is something much more valuable to Brady. It is evident that Brady loves horses; he lives and breathes them. Later, we find out he is a bronco rider, but he also cares for, trains, and breaks horses.
While being an invalid, waiting for his head to heal, he also has to deal with a father, Wayne (Tim Jandreau), who spends all their money on alcohol and does not have much of any positive to say about his son. Brady also has a mentally-challenged sister, Lilly (Lilly Jandreau), who relies on him and their father for support. Money is tight, and there has been a threat of removing the trailer from their property. Brady relied on money from training horses but also competing in rodeos. All of these complications to his life just adds to the weight of recovery and getting back on his feet.
If you notice something a bit off about most of the cast’s acting, it is because they are not actors. This is based on a period of life in Brady Jandreau’s life that was partially fictionalized and brought to fruition by writer and director Chloé Zhao. This is no ordinary undertaking, as it takes determination for such an idea to progress from script to screen. Relying on people to play parts with no experience takes a leap of faith, but on the other hand, no other people could play these parts the way that Brady, his family, and friends do in The Rider. It makes it a special film, devoid of kitschy moments and focuses on a reality that these people live every day. The effect is special, raw, and emotional, especially taking Brady back to a traumatic time in his life.
The possible endpoint for Brady is reflected in his friend, Lane (Lane Scott). Lane also had an accident at a rodeo, and his life was forever changed, just like Brady. He is mentioned earlier in the film about him being in rehab, and my thoughts went to Lane possibly being an addict. Only it is after Brady arrives at the rehab facility that it becomes evident that he has had a brain injury that has affected his speech and motor skills. Brady communicates with Lane via sign language, and Brady treats with Lane with all the respect and kindness due to him. What is observed underneath is a sadness of what Lane has become. He too will never ride again. It is also a reminder to Brady of what his life could be like if he tries risking his life for the rodeo. It is in the quiet moments between Lane and Brady that I continue to play in my head. It seems like regret would be part of this scenario, but I don’t believe either character (or their real-life counterparts) would say they regret what placed them at that moment.
The ride of The Rider is extraordinary. The ending will hit you like a ton of bricks as it is both a resolution and an acceptance for Brady. It is hard for anyone to imagine having to give up your passion and what makes you love to live, let alone having to or end up in worse health. Pair the phenomenal story with the incredible cinematography of the Dakotas by Joshua James Richards, and this is a film that should not be missed. It is an indie gem that resulted from all the cast and crew’s worlds colliding to bring The Rider to fruition.