The Rider (2017) – The Story of the Real-life Rodeo and How to Let Go

I love watching films, I have the membership for various cinemas, I always give films rating in IMDB. I just started writing reviews earlier this year, because I thought it’s just a way of practicing my writing skills. As an academic, good writing skills is kind of beneficial leverage for landing a future job. Whether film reviews can be used for consideration for a future career, I don’t think so. It’s just a hobby. Anyway, I do watch a lot of films, but finding a film that is worth my time to review is just hard. The film has to have an element that I genuinely find attractive.

This time the opportunity goes to The Rider (2017), a film directed by Chloé Zhao, a Chinese film director, screenwriter, and producer born in Beijing. It fascinates me when I learn that this is only the second film from Zhao and the theme of the first film, “Songs My Brothers Taught Me” (2015), was also similar. It also involved wilderness, horses, and how ones dealing with such tough decisions. In one of the interviews, Zhao explained that her affection to the western theme and the wilderness surrounding it was drawn from her fondness to Mongolian plains (full interview can be seen here). The recent news also confirmed that Zhao will direct a film entitled “Nomadland” starring the Academy Award winner Frances McDormand and also a film from the Marvel Cinematic Universe, “The Eternals”.

Spoiler alert. I have warned you.

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The epic panorama of South Dakota, where the film is set. (source: IMDB.com)

The film tells the story of Brady Jandreau (in the film his name is changed to Brady Blackburn), a Rodeo rider who struggles to get his life back together and get back on the saddle after underwent a very horrific accident. First of all, the casts for this film are already unique since they cast the entire Jandreau family to star the film. In fact, the film itself is actually inspired by the true story of the main actor, a formula which Zhao has used for her previous work “Songs My Brothers Taught Me” (2015). She gave the opportunity to the actors to tell their own story.

This type of treatment is not specifically new. It has been tried several times before, for example, “The Greatest” (1977) starring Mohammad Ali, which is basically his own biopic film. I will make a huge assumption here, so feel free to give me some perspectives later. This method can be used super effectively for channeling the raw emotions of the actors since the actors actually experienced all the scenes in the real-life setting. However, it will require a very attentive treatment from the director considering that the actors had a relatively zero experience in front of the camera. Otherwise, it will probably end up as a cinematic disaster. In this film, I will say that Zoe achieves tremendous success. During the film, you will know immediately that some of them are not professional actors. In a way, realizing that they are not properly trained actors made me had to compromise myself to the expectation of what “good acting” is, but on the other hand, the emotion they gave to the camera is raw, pure, and unfiltered. This type of sentiment is very rare to be witnessed in the cinemas. It’s beautiful.

As we go deeper into the plot, it gets clearer that it’s not simply a story about a man and his rodeo world. Multiple layers of complexity start to unravel giving us a storyline that probably will resonate with a lot of the audiences.  His family is poor, they live in a trailer, his younger sister has a mental disability, and one of his best friend, which was also a rodeo, also underwent a horrific accident, which resulted in a more damaging physically compared to Brady’s (in real life, his best friend Lane Scott had a car accident, not a rodeo accident). During the film, we can comprehend that his conventional idea of masculinity was ultimately challenged. He felt like his pride and dignity was in peril. It is not just about the story of a rodeo who struggles to find his way back into the only world he ever knows, but also about letting it go.

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Brady and the horse. I do not know what else to say. (source: IMDB.com)

Probably he did not anything else besides doing rodeo. The rodeo was his whole world. I could not imagine how hard it is to let go the only thing you know since growing up and the only thing that I fond deeply. All of these entangled feelings and emotional conflicts were displayed in all rawness.

I also have to praise and applaud Joshua James Richards, the cinematographer. The gorgeous shots of the slow-motion evocative close up in the very beginning of the film is a strong statement. The beautiful landscape of South Dakota nature, captivating terrain, and enchanting horse-riding scenes. They are aligned perfectly with the emotion that the films try to convey. Just a little bit of trivia, there is a 7-minute scene where it just shows you how the Brady trains a horse. It was mentioned during the interview that for this specific scene, the Zhao only wrote down “Brady trains a horse” for the whole 7-minute scene.

In conclusion, this film is not a film that will give you a roller-coaster type of emotions, jump-from-your-seat climaxes, or well-defined resolutions. Instead, this is a story that will guide you through a journey and it makes you aching slowly.

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