The Rider

 

            This quiet movie, filled with unknowns, has a down-home, rural-heartland feel.  It's emotional without wheedling or overweening.  Its characters look authentic, and so does the slow-burning desperation of their lives.

            Brady Blackburn (Brady Jandreau) is a small-town rodeo cowboy.  A real one.  He's grown up around horses, and wants nothing more than to compete in the local circuit.  Doesn't have to be fancy.  He doesn't need big crowds.  But he does like to win, and already he's developed a reputation for grit and determination.

            But Brady's suffered a big setback.  He got hit on the head during a competition, and had a bad fall.  Now he's got a metal plate in his head, and big metal stitches.  Worse, he's experiencing a lingering neurological problem:  his right hand clenches closed, and he has to pry his fingers open with his other hand.  The doctor tells him no more rodeo, no more riding.  And Brady isn't adjusting well. 

            He takes a job at a local food mart, and doesn't complain about mopping floors, washing dishes, or stocking shelves.  But it isn't easy when a “fan” recognizes him, asks for a photograph with him, and then wonders what he's doing there.  Brady says that he's working while he's mending, which implies temproary but really means that he hasn't yet accepted the loss of his only passion.

            He's not getting much emotional support at home.  His Mom is dead.  His Dad, Wayne (Tim Jandreau) has descended into a kind of numb, underachieving limbo, selling off some livestock, falling behind on the trailer rent, frequenting the local bar and casino.  He seems to be a man shuffling along without ambition or dreams, but there's nothing wrong with him, either.  There's just no joy in his life; only aimlessness.  He has a teenage daughter, Lilly (Lilly Jandreau), who's autistic, and who's also sweet and unassuming and unabashadly loves both her brother and her Dad, which probably holds both of them together.

            Brady decides that he has to do more than just sit around campfires at night and drink beeer (or smoke weed) with his old rodeo buddies.  He takes up the offer of a couple of local ranchers to help train some unruly horses, and it's obvious Brady has a great talent.  He's incredibly gentle, taking it slow and easy, talking quietly and issuing instructions patiently.  But of course the last step is to get on and ride, and Brady just can't help himself.  He loves it too much.  He's taking a tremendous risk, of course---especially if he falls again.  But even the jostling isn't good for his traumatized cranium, and soon some unwelcome symptoms appear, and we are sad for him, because without his horses, he literally doesn't know who he is.  But we are really endeared to Brady when we see him relate to his buddy Lane (Lane Scott), also a former rodeo rider, who was so severely injured that he's in a rehab hospital, unable to speak or walk.  Brady unself-consciously cheers up his old friend, communicating with great difficulty, demonstrating that being a cowboy isn't just about swaggering around like a tough hombre, twirling a six-shooter, and posing for unsmiling Marlboro ads.

            Director Chloe Zhao lets us revel in the wide-open rugged landscape, mixing in a ruminative musical score.  It's a sympathetic look at a part of rural America that's eulogized in old country songs, but actually still exists, albeit under Hollywood's radar, because it's not glitzy and glamorous enough.  Her pacing is unhurried, and she's not plummeting us toward a tragic ending, or selling us short with a sappy one, either.  Her characters simply have to figure out on their own how to play the cards they're dealt.  Like the rest of us.

 

Dr. Ronald P. Salfen, DFW Film Critics Association