Rating: 4 stars
“The Rider,” a marvelous film by Chloé Zhao, tells the story of rodeo horseman Brady Blackburn, who, after suffering a near-fatal head injury after being stepped on by a bucking bronco, must find his place within a world where the phrase “ride or die” takes on real, high-stakes meaning.
Blackburn is played by Brady Jandreau, a real-life bronc rider who sustained similar injuries. After Zhao met him while researching another film, she decided to create a movie around him, lightly fictionalizing his story and casting other nonprofessionals — including Brady’s father and sister — in supporting roles. Filmed with widescreen grandeur on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, “The Rider” reinvigorates tropes from the western genre of men, horses, honor codes and vast expanses of nature with a refreshing lack of sentimentality, without sacrificing their inherent lyricism and poetry.
“The Rider” begins with Brady waking from a dream about his favorite old horse to the cold, blue reality of an austere morning: The reflection that meets him is of a horrific gash along the side of his head, held together with staples. Working the rodeo circuit again is out of the question; now Brady must consider a future either training horses or an even more dreaded fate: working a civilian job.
Zhao doesn’t weigh her protagonist down with an overbusy story. She simply follows him as he catches up with friends, banters with his sister and dad, and works with the horses with whom he shares an almost mystical bond. A film composed of elegant shots of endless prairies, moonlit campfires and rawboned faces, “The Rider” makes the most of silence, finding lyricism in the sound of tinkling wind chimes and rustling grass. Zhao, who was born in China but spent most of her adult life in the United States, has a deep appreciation for the American vernacular, both visual and spoken. Some of the film’s finest sequences observe Brady and his friends as they swap stories about fallen comrades, as often as not breaking into sweet, mournful song.
When Brady falls in love with a horse named Apollo, both he and the animal seem to take flight, and so does the movie. Seasoned moviegoers will suspect that heartbreak must ensue. It does, but “The Rider” resists cheap emotion and manipulation at every turn. This rigorous, compassionate film possesses instinct and sensitivity worthy of Jandreau, who has a fabulous face for the screen, projecting natural charisma despite an almost wordless reticence. There are excruciating moments in “The Rider” and some exquisite ones, too — of recklessness and resilience, and rituals of communion between Jandreau and his human and animal companions that take on the liminal beauty of prayer. Zhao is a filmmaker of extraordinary tact and insight: She has taken a story that could have been unremarkable or too romanticized and made it into something honest, magnificent and lasting.
R. At area theaters. Contains coarse language and drug use. 105 minutes.