Review: ‘The Rider,’ a cowboy drama that artfully blurs truth and fiction
IF YOU GO …
What: ’The Rider,’ presented by Aspen Film and Windwalkers
Where: Isis Theatre
When: 7:30 p.m.(reception at Kemo Sabe, 6 p.m.)
How much: $25; $50 for screening and reception
Tickets and more info: aspenfilm.org; the screening will be preceded by a reception at Kemo Sabe and followed by a Q&A with retired pro bareback rider Braxten Nielsen
In the opening moments of “The Rider,” we see Brady pop staples out of his skull with a Bowie knife. Strong, silent and tougher than nails, the rodeo champion has discharged himself early from a hospital after surgery, with a steel plate in his head and instructions to never ride in a rodeo again.
The brain injury leaves him with a flaring temper, hand seizures and a shattered sense of self. The rest of this empathetic but unflinchingly realistic film follows Brady as he itches to ride again and struggles to navigate a life not lived on horseback.
Gorgeously rendered by writer-director Chloe Zhao, the film set in South Dakota cowboy country enlists nonprofessional actors to play versions of themselves — the injured bronco rider Brady Jandreau leading the cast as Brady — and their often mesmerizing performances lend the drama rare weight and authenticity.
“The Rider” won the Art Cinema Award at last year’s Cannes Film Festival and is now making its way into select U.S. theaters. It has become, with good reason, one of the most highly praised films of the year so far and should be required viewing for anyone living in the American West, though it’s much more than a regional film.
“The Rider” will screen Tuesday at the Isis Theatre in a special co-presentation by Aspen Film and the horse therapy nonprofit Windwalkers.
Unable to ride, Brady stays home with his mentally challenged sister and his hard-drinking widowed father (played by Jandreau’s actual sister and father, Lily and Tim). When he’s alone, we often see him watch and rewatch footage of himself getting bucked off a horse and stomped.
Still, he lingers around the rodeo scene and struggles to give up his saddle.
He frequently visits a fellow bronco rider, Lane, who is permanently hospitalized with a more severe traumatic brain injury. Together, they watch highlight reels of Lane’s glory days and, in one devastating scene, they attempt to simulate that greatness with a practice saddle in the hospital. (Lane is also played by a real-life injured former bronc rider, Lane Scott.)
The film hits many of the same story beats and themes as Darren Aronofsky’s “The Wrestler,” including the beaten-down hero reluctantly taking a a grocery store job and the self-destructive allure of the sport that may kill him. But the better comparison might be the post-World War II classic “The Best Years of Our Lives,” which cast disabled war veterans to play returning soldiers and won a Best Supporting Actor award for Army vet Harold Russell, who lost his hands in the war.
“The Rider” harnesses a similar intensity with Jandreau and his fellow riders in the cast. The unique combination of harsh reality and artful filmmaking makes for unforgettable scenes, like a night of drinking and reminiscing around a campfire where Brady and his buddies recount stories of injuries and near-misses in the rodeo ring. It captures something about the spirit and passion of this subculture that no professional actor could have gotten across.
These kinds of casting choices, of course, often sputter on screen (Clint Eastwood’s “The 15:17 to Paris” is a recent example). But in the case of “The Rider,” it’s no stunt. It appears to have been the most affective creative choice that Zhao could have made.
Zhao also tempts fate by venturing into the cliche-ridden terrain of cowboys and their horses, but she almost always steers away from the expected and finds something new to do with the material. She finds visual poetry in watching Brady at work as a horse trainer, trying to calm a stubborn bronco. There’s even a scene of a cowboy riding into the sunset that manages to make that familiar image look and feel new.
Tuesday’s screening of “The Rider” is among the first presentations in an expanded summer lineup for Aspen Film. The nonprofit film society’s season includes film series at the Aspen Art Museum, the DAM series at The Temporary at Willits and the monthly Indie Showcase at the Isis along with a co-presentation of historic French cinema with the Aspen Music Festival and School.
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