Film Journal: The Rider

** A note on the format: Previously, posts on this blog were magazine- style movie reviews.  I’m switching to a more personal format, where I can keep track of what I thought about movies I watched.

“I got hurt real bad like Apollo did.  Only I got to live because I’m a person.”

-Brady, telling his sister about a horse he had to put down.

I was intrigued by The Rider the first time I heard the story.  Director Chloe Zhao wanted to make a movie about her friend Brady, a former rodeo star who suffered a head injury  when a bucking bronco stomped on on his skull (you see the incident in the movie).

Zheng filmed with a five- person crew in the South Dakota badlands.  The “actors” play themselves.  It’s not a documentary, but it’s not quite “based on a true story” either.  It is a true story, re-enacted in movie form.  The Rider follows Brady’s recovery from injury.  Will he ever ride again?

Somewhere in the middle of the first act, I thought to myself, “I’m OK with either outcome.”

Doctors tell Brady not to ride.  His dad calls him stupid for getting on a horse even as he tells Brady to “cowboy up”.  Brady is something of a local celebrity; strangers in bars and grocery stores ask when he will ride again.  Brady’s friend Lane suffered severe brain damage after a bull riding accident.  Lane lives in rehab, can’t talk or move on his own, and communicates by spelling words with his fingers.  “Rub some dirt in it,” he tells Brady of his injury.

Rub some dirt in it.  Cowboy up.  Be a man.  Brady faces pressure to ride.  But probably the greatest pressure comes from within.

“I believe God gave everybody a purpose,” Brady tells his sister.  “And a cowboy’s gotta ride.”

Brady has a superior gift with horses, and some of my favorite footage came from watching Brady train them.  He trained all the horses on the set.  He approaches the massive animals with visceral equality.  It’s like Brady is a horse.

I loved watching Brady tremendously.  He is a solid guy.  He never loses his head, yells, screams, or does any of those other things you see guys struggling with machismo doing in movies.  He treats everyone with fairness and kindness. He’s the kind of person strangers compliment.  He cries quietly in his truck.  He makes quips to his dad about spending all the family’s money on booze and gambling.  He rolls his eyes when his friends wake him up to “go get messed up”.  He and all his friends have a quiet, strong way about them.  Some of my favorite moments came from the film’s relationship with religion.  At one point, a character prays for Lane over a crackling bonfire, then whips out his sticker- covered acoustic guitar and sings a song.  It feels holy.  Brady and the other characters muse over God’s plan.

The best part of The Rider is that everything is real.  Brady re-enacts his own painful recovery.  Lane was a real life bull riding champion; he became injured in a car crash, though.  Brady’s autistic sister plays herself.  The characters shot the movie after finishing their real jobs.  The “sets” were people’s houses and workplaces.  It feels like a privileged look into extremely private lives.  You know when you drive by those trailers and ranches on road trips and always wonder who lives there?  This film sheds light on that.

I also loved the cinematography.  The sweeping wide shots of grass prairies and wide open skies made me nostalgic for Oklahoma.  You can really only know the magic of a sky like that when you stand directly under it.  I heard Zhao speak about her admiration for Terrence Malick’s The New World.  I think she definitely mastered some of his atmospherism.  The Rider shows the beauty of the land of the people living in it.  Poor people.  Proud people. Strong people.  Beautiful people.


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