When The Rider begins, Brady Blackburn, a young rodeo rider is recovering from a horrible injury he received in the rodeo ring. He’s lucky not to be dead; and even luckier not to be totally crippled or paralyzed. But it looks like his horse-riding days are over. Brady’s journey to healing and acceptance takes up the bulk of this movie and it’s a real sucker-punch of a film. Brady Jandreau plays Brady Blackburn and there’s a reason the first names are the same. Writer-director Chloe Zhao met Brady Jandreau when he was himself recovering from a rodeo injury and she found Jandreau and his story so compelling that she crafted this film around him. For the real Brady, it must have been a surreal experience, reenacting circumstances and feeling emotions for a second time. But Zhao’s instincts were right on. Jandreau’s performance is one of the best of the year; it’s minimal and reserved, but totally honest and under the placid surface, emotions like depression, rage, sorrow, love and regret are mixing in complicated and painful ways. The rest of the cast is made up of non-professionals as well and they’re all good, but not as good as Brady is; he’s a natural and he holds the camera in a compelling way, both resisting and welcoming the eyes of the audience. Lane Scott, playing a fictionalized version of himself, is a real-life rodeo rider who suffered a truly crippling accident at the age of just nineteen and his scenes with Jandreau are incredibly painful, but as the film progresses, they become transcendent somehow. The physically and emotional fragile Brady can’t quite keep up with his wild friends anymore and isn’t sure he can tolerate the shallowness of their emotional lives perhaps; but with Scott, he finds a spirit he can cling to. The film is gorgeously shot, capturing all the beauty of the American plains and the use of light in the film is captivating and beautiful. The horsework in the film is also really well done. But it really is the character of Brady and the slow discovery of his interior life that will stay with you in a powerful way. There’s a cheesy version of this film for sure and Zhao is aware of it and constantly steers clear. This isn’t your typical journey to recovery and redemption; recoveries and redemptions don’t come cheap in the real world and a lot of times, the ones we want aren’t the ones we need. This movie, though, we need; don’t miss this beautiful, near-perfect gem. 4 stars.
tl;dr – this deeply emotional portrait of longing and loss is beautifully shot and features a stunning lead performance; powerful and profound. 4 stars.