In the words of late American author Robert Byrne: “The purpose of life is a life of purpose.” Some of us are lucky enough to find ours, some live out their lives struggling to. But what happens when you lose that purpose? Do you give up or keep on going? That’s exactly what The Rider is all about. Chloé Zhao’s second directorial venture takes us on a journey of suffering, struggle and acceptance.
Almost entirely based on a true story, it revolves around Brady Blackburn, a rising star in the rodeo circuit who suffered a horrific bronco accident in 2016 when a horse stamped on his skull. We are introduced to him during his recovery, as he goes about life and struggles to come to grips with the harsh reality that his rodeo career might well be over. Zhao masterfully weaves a believable world; an achievement only magnified by the fact that the cast consists of non-professional actors playing cinematic versions of themselves.
The protagonist repeatedly claims he’ll be back at the rodeo soon, all the while suffering seizures which remind him of the accident’s consequences. He chooses to ignore his injuries and refuses to rest, continuing to train and ride horses. Inevitably, he is struck by a life-threatening seizure with doctors telling him never to ride again. Stuck between the only thing he is good at and what is undeniably for his own good, he comes across as a vulnerable character many would relate to.
Brady Jandreau’s portrayal of his renamed version is simply stunning. You can vividly see the pain through his eyes, feel the distress through his actions. Lilly Jandreau, who plays the likeable sister with autism, steals the show every time she’s on screen. Their father, Tim, is completely convincing as Wayne Blackburn, the stern father who is supportive at heart. The few scenes featuring Brady’s best friend, Lane Scott, who was left disabled after a car accident, are enough to move anybody. Apart from the main cast, each actor does justice to their role despite limited screen time. The film would be nowhere near what it is without the stellar performances.
Brady’s fate is expertly and subtly foreshadowed through his horse, Apollo, whom he buys and trains during the course of the movie. After an attempt to jump the fence and escape leaves Apollo with an incurable injury in his leg, Brady’s father has to put him down after he is unable to do it himself. A parallel can be drawn between Brady and his horse. They’re both hurt and ‘put down’ in different ways, with Brady forced to let go of his purpose.
The Rider has a lot going for it, but it’s not flawless. The narrative occasionally lingers, especially during the initial stages as we’re made familiar with a day in Brady’s life, but slowly picks up pace as the minutes go by. Visually, it’s nothing short of a feast for the eyes. A shot where you see Brady riding his horse, Gus, down a field is utterly mesmerising. The poignant background score and gripping dialogues at few points add to its arsenal.
“I believe God gives each of us a purpose, for a horse, it’s to run across a prairie. For a cowboy it’s to ride,” Brady announces at one point, perfectly capturing the essence of the movie. A filmic gem that won’t be forgotten for years to come, The Rider works because it is real, and perhaps more importantly, it feels real.