|Image courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.|
Set against stunning backdrops, Zhao's film takes a near documentary approach as it follows Brady Blackburn, a rodeo rider and horse trainer who is played by Brady Jandreau - who is now an actor, but was formerly a rodeo rider and horse trainer. There's a scene in the picture during which Brady trains a wild horse and the scene plays out in real time. From what I understand, this was not a scripted moment, but rather Zhao capturing Jandreau actually training a horse that ended up becoming a scene in the film
In other words, this is a fictional story, but more than a few moments are grounded in the real lives of the mostly nonprofessional actors portraying the characters. Brady - Blackburn, that is - has recently suffered a serious injury from rodeo riding, and has large staples - and, apparently, a metal plate - in his head to show for it. His doctors, father and sister, Lilly - who is autistic and played by Lilly Jandreau - advise him against riding again, but we know that advice will go unheeded.
Brady's closest friend is a guy named Lane (Lane Scott), a former rodeo rider who had a catastrophic accident that left him severely paralyzed and unable to speak. Brady sees the dangers of his passion in the state in which Lane has been left, but also can't tear himself away from it. As he waits for his wounds to heal, he trains two horses - Gus and a wild stallion named Apollo - and helps out a young man who wants to follow in Brady's footsteps.
Story is minimal in "The Rider" and characterization mostly takes place on faces. Jandreau is the silent, stoic type, although he does a great job of getting us inside the head of his character, despite his propensity for remaining quiet. Brady's life is one that has been filled with disappointment and tragedy. While his head bear the scars of his accident, he spends a quiet moment early in the film at his mother's grave. We don't hear the story of her death, but don't particularly need to. The film is also filled with devastatingly sad moments during which Brady sits in an assisted care facility with Lane as the two of them watch the latter's old rodeo videos.
This is a visually stunning movie. Zhao trains her camera on gorgeous vistas at sunrise, the magic hour and the nighttime - and the result is often breathtaking. "The Rider" is a slowly paced drama that mostly observes, rather than relies heavily on storytelling - and this goes a long way in creating the film's somber, dirge-like tone. Patient moviegoers who are interested seeing a story told in a corner of the United States that is mostly ignored by the movies will be duly rewarded.