Tuesday, 17 July 2018

Film Review: The Rider

A young cowboy grapples with an identity crisis after suffering a devastating head injury.

The Rider is a story about Brady Blackburn, a strapping rodeo cowboy who is struggling to come to terms with an uncertain future after a vicious knock to the head inflicts brain damage and hinders his motor functions. Brady is played by Brady Jandreau, himself a strapping rodeo cowboy who struggled to come to terms with an uncertain future after a vicious knock to the head inflicts brain damage and hinders his motor functions.

Brady, both the actor and the character, are for all intents and purposes one and the same in Chloe Zhao's The Rider. The film is a dramatisation of his recovery and emotional turmoil, set against the same barren backdrop in heartland America and populated with a cast of actors who, just like Brady, are playing a version of themselves. Jandreau's father, Tim, plays Brady's gruff father, Wayne Blackburn. The same can be said of his sister, Lilly, who has Aspergers.

Jandreau, who bears a scary resemblance to a young Heath Ledger and has no acting background, does an exemplary job of bringing his own past into the present. Sure, he's been there and lived it; but acting in something else, and Jandreau's steely squint across the prairie is able to say a lot. His familiarity and hands-on approach with the horses lends the film an element of authenticity that a career actor wouldn't have been able to fully realise.

Zhao's film centres around the key concept of identity; Brady, having lived his entire life with a singular vision of the future, must grapple with the notion that the years ahead are as barren, featureless and unknown as the yawning landscape that stretches out in every direction.  In an instant, every dream and action working towards that dream has been snatched from him; before, Brady's father would tell him to 'cowboy up' or 'be a man'. Now he urges him to let it go and move on.

This internal struggle is compelling in and of itself, and the exemplary technical aspects of The Rider – writing, score, direction – only heighten the emotion and heartbreak. Nathan Halpern's score is beautiful and moving while Joshua James Richards' cinematography gorgeously captures the dusty fields and swaying grasses. In terms of mood and aesthetic, The Rider is poetic and moving stuff.

The Verdict: 9/10

An intimate and authentic portrait of experiencing loss and feeling lost, Chloe Zhao's The Rider is a tender examination of masculinity, family and how the two intersect with responsibility and identity. Unquestionably one of the best films of the year thus far.

The Rider was previewed at the 2018 Revelation Perth International Film Festival earlier in the month. At the time of writing, it doesn't currently have a wider release slated for Australia. 

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