MIFF Review: The Rider

Writer/Director Chloé Zhao’s (Songs My Brother Taught Me) sophomore feature film comes to us on the back of wide acclaim and it’s easy to see why. The Rider is a beautifully played, authentic human drama made all the more impressive from its star turn from non-actor Brady Jandreau and gorgeous cinematography from God’s Own Country alum Joshua James Richards. 

What do you do when everything you’ve ever known how to do is taken away from you? That’s the central premise of the haunting and beguiling fictionalised account of Brady Jandreau’s real life, a South Dakotan rodeo rider who has just suffered an horrific fall and head injury that sees him unable to ride. In playing a version of himself, Jandreau’s debut turn is as assured as a seasoned performer.

Wrestling with his natural affinity for horse riding yet standing in the deep realities of how savage the injuries the vocation delivers, Brady’s slow burn frustrations and fears are subtly brought to life as we journey through his world. He’s a man trying to find where he fits in a lifestyle that can no longer support him.

Surrounding Brady are a cast of Jandreau’s real life family and friends. His father, a reckless gambler and dirt poor, barely manages to keep the household together. His mentally disabled sister a beacon of innocence and hope. His mentor and best friend Lane, also a recipient of a brutal head injury, is now severely mentally handicapped and bound to a wheel chair. It’s all potent and evocative stuff.

The Rider always works as a tome to a lost Americana, a idyll that, in these times, is all but rusted and forgotten.The cowboy lifestyle existing on the small outskirts and fringes where its toxic masculinity is held onto. There’s an honour to it, yet Zhao deftly juxtaposes it against the harsh realities that plague its devotees.

Sumptuously shot by Joshua James Richards, with the full anamorphic frame expertly used, The Rider is one of the more handsome films you’ll see this year. Indeed, South Dakota is just as much a character in play as the actual cast.

Zhao’s handling of her characters and this story is one of great care and sensitivity. The film is bursting with heart and hurt yet never feels forced or melodramatic. In someone else’s hands, The Rider would’ve fallen prey to dramatic showboating, but Zhao brings a deft human authenticity to the film – encapsulated by real people playing fictionalised versions of themselves.

The Rider is one of the finest films to come out of the United States this year. It’s a beautifully handled character piece that speaks volumes in the things it doesn’t say. Gorgeously shot, delicately performed and full of heart. This is truly a great, great film that should be seen on the biggest screen you can find.