For maybe the first 15 minutes of The Rider, I thought that it may not be the movie for me. “I’ll get up soon and make a hot toddy,” I thought to myself. Reader I never got up. This film had already grabbed me even then, I just hadn’t realized. I stayed in place, sat still, watching it, until the very end, and then finally moved to bend my head onto my knees and cry and cry. I felt like a clear Dakota wind might blow me apart but it was alright, the pieces of my slip-shod soul would just rest in the grasses with the broken reverent hearts of sorrowful cowboys forever more.
There’s a somewhat popular adage that directors who are not from a community somehow tend to be the ones to produce the truest works about it, their sensitivity unfettered from sentimentality. Of course this is only the case with the most empathetic and intelligent directors, which Chloé Zhao has just proven she is beyond a shadow of a doubt under a wide prairie sky, and I would like to add her to the Sean Baker list with full rights and privileges effective immediately.
Like Baker’s The Florida Project last year, the veritas nature of this movie’s production is astounding, even before combined with the care and insight this “outsider” director had in depicting a world that was not her own—all of this speaking to an absolutely gobsmacking amount of directorial talent) For only her second movie, Zhao, a filmmaker raised in the bustle of Beijing, stepped onto a remote Lakota-Sioux reservation in the American West, and worked with a cast of non-professional actors to craft an intimate, poetic Western on masculinity and identity, recreating for her cameras the real, lived story of her lead, young injured rodeo star Brady Jandreau (‘Brady Blackburn’ in the film).
This boy, this incredible boy, stepped in front of a camera for the first time in his life and turned in my second favorite male performance of the year, following only Ethan Hawke in First Reformed. He’s magic. I firmly believe that there are some people in this world who are Horse Trainers, and that their energy comes from somewhere in the earth and wind that the rest of ours doesn’t. Brady is the first person I’ve ever seen break an audience like he breaks a horse, with just a pure, quiet talent for drawing your attention, and holding it.
So it seems a spare and tender modern cowboy myth out of the Badlands is a movie for me after all.