“The Rider… presents its audience with something of a conundrum: What is more important in a performance? Authenticity or technical acting ability?” – Wayward Wolf.
Brady Blackburn (Brady Jandreau), is firmly of the opinion that his career as a rodeo rider is merely on hold whilst he recuperates from the fall and severe head injury that he recently sustained in action.
And though inundated with the encouragement and well wishes of others, it quickly becomes clear to all that any sort of come back from this would be both short-lived and eminently foolhardy.
With this realisation in mind, Brady must now somehow try to find renewed meaning in an existence that has for his entire life been intrinsically linked to the life of a cowboy. But living in a remote rural location bereft of any real employment opportunities and with little by way of alternative education and skill sets to call upon, the odds are somewhat stacked against him.
Even his efforts to use the highly impressive skills he possesses as a horse trainer – passed down to him by his father – seem doomed to failure as the neurological impact of his injury begins to manifest itself physically, hampering his ability to properly carry out even this somewhat less physically demanding work. Indeed, Brady is informed that if he ever attempts to ride again, it could very well kill him.
It’s only then through the relationship that he has with his developmentally-disabled sister Lilly, and severely disabled friend, Lane Scott – himself an ex-rodeo rider – that Brady can then take stock of his life and begin to see beyond everything that he has ever been and ever thought he would be.
It’s a thoughtful and atmospheric film that’s ever so beautifully shot, making full use of the raw, wind-swept beauty of the South Dakota badlands. And through Zhao’s gritty, visceral and highly textural approach to the direction, one can almost feel the creaking well-worn leather of Brady’s saddle, and the cold steel of the stirrups that hang securely from it.
Given their real-life talents and abilities with horses, through taking the risk of casting Brady Jandreau and his co-actors in the film’s leading roles, Chloe Zhao’s film positively brims with vigour, energy and above all authenticity.
But The Rider then presents its audience with something of a conundrum:
What is more important in a performance? Authenticity or technical acting ability?
For all of the honest, earthy qualities that the cast undoubtedly bring to the table, it is ultimately the limitations of their ability as actors – failing at times to fully convey the necessary emotions and conviction required – that frequently hamper the film’s best intentions.
And what a very great shame that is.
It’s really not out of all proportion to suggest that given the right choice of cast, The Rider would have had all of the necessary ingredients to be considered something bordering on a masterpiece.
As it is, Zhao’s film fails to convince as a whole, and falls frustratingly short of what it might have been.
Harsh? Perhaps. But one cannot tip-toe around the truth here.
The Rider is as authentic, thoughtful, heartfelt and soulful as the day is long, but ultimately it’s what would appear to be the film’s greatest assets that ultimately prove to be its unfortunate undoing.