Original Name: The Rider
Director: Chloé Zhao
Runtime: 105 minutes
IMDB Link: https://www.imdb.com/title/tt6217608/
Chloé Zhao: Born and raised in Beijing in 1985, educated in London & the US, shifting gears from studying Political Science at Mount Holyoke to Film Production at NYU. Her films have focused on characters contemplating their lives in specific rural settings. Her 2015 feature debut ‘Songs My Brothers Taught Me’ premiered at the Sundance Film Festival and Directors’ Fortnight at the Cannes Film Festival.
“So I know that I want to make a film with [Brady]. I started to write all these stories he can act in. Which were partially inspired by something he can do in real life, horses and stuff. None of those stories were very good. Until he got hurt a year and a half later. And then I talked to him about it, and he started to describe his recovery process. So I thought, oh, that could be.”
Since its success at the 2017 Cannes Film Festival where it won the Director’s Fortnight prize, people has compared The Rider with The Wrestler (2008), another film about a man who is in his career-crisis. Although both are humanistic and powerful, it’s not a fair assessment at all. What Chloe Zhao achieved here is different than Darren Aronofsky did with the Wrestler. The Rider soars because it feels real. After all, this is a story from non-professional actors who play version of themselves, in a story that happened to them in real life. It’s not a documentary either because everything happened in the film is constructed in the way it can bring maximum drame. Yet looking it Brady on screen (Brady Jandreau), you can’t help but feel the weight that the accident did to him. Most stories about a gloried hero (in the case, gloried rodeo) focus on the career. This story starts afterwards, when the glory is far gone and our hero remains a shackle of his past, questioning his own identity and values.
With the metal plate on his head and his hand sometimes freezes as if it can’t let go, the doctor and everyone makes it very clear that Brady won’t be able to do Rodeo again. A clip from his (real life) accident, his rodeo friend who gets caught into an accident further inform us how thrilling and dangerous the job is. But with Brady, like fireflies attracted to the light, it’s the only life he knows (and is proud of), naturally it causes him to rethink about himself, about whether or not he keeps doing what he loves to do, even at the cost of his life. As the plot organically moves forward, we see Brady slowly coming to terms with his new life. Not only Brady the actor has so much charisma that he held our attention throughout, the supporting cast including his real life father and sister, all play off really well in their scenes. There’s the naturalism and honesty that are so hard to capture onscreen, but Zhao achieves these near flawlessly.
One of her trick for its level of “truth” is that she allows her characters to do what they always do onscreen. There’s a extended improv sequence where Brady tries to tame one of the reluctant horse. As it folds out on screen, almost in real life, we see how Brady gains the horse’s trust, and more powerfully how much the man is around the horses. It’s rare to see those really authentic scenes fold out right in front of us. It reaches the point where there doesn’t feel like acting anymore. It’s just, the man and his horse. The same can be said when Brad visits his best friend Lane, who is now incapable to communicate. As Brad talks to him and they look at each other, there’s the genuine mutual feeling between them that you immediately know these guys have known each other for most of their lives. You know, regular actors just can’t beat that. As the film comes to its end, it becomes unclear whether he will go back to rodeo, which for this film is an appropriate closure. Reportedly Zhao was nervous on how the audience would receive the film back when it first screened in Cannes. She didn’t need to worry, with a film that rings this authentic, people would have to pay attention.