Synopsis: After suffering a near fatal head injury, a young cowboy undertakes a search for new identity and what it means to be a man in the heartland of America. (From IMDb)
Review: Like all artistic endeavors, independent films can go one of two ways: either phenomenally good or painfully bad. The Rider falls somewhere in between. A deeply moving film with a sympathetic lead, The Rider is set in South Dakota and depicts the hard life of the rodeo circuit and what happens when career threatening injury occurs. Unlike most films, independent or otherwise, all the actors in are amateurs and depict lightly fictionalized versions of themselves. This film toes the line between drama and docuseries.
In April 2016, Brady Blackburn was thrown off a bronco at a rodeo. As a bronco rider, these falls occur rather often, but time something different happened. The horse trampled Brady and one of its hoofs connected with his head. Shockingly, he never lost consciousness. But he requires extensive surgery, a plate insertion into his skull, and the realization that he probably will never ride in the ring again. This sets of the main theme of the movie, depicting the struggle that happens when your entire way of life and self-identity falls apart.
The film takes place in South Dakota on the Pine Ridge Oglala Lakota Reservation, though this was not apparent until I googled it afterwards. Brady Jandreau (who plays himself as Brady Blackburn) did not give a lot of thought to telling his story on screen. Living out on the windswept plains of South Dakota, Brady spent most of his childhood around horses. He was rode his first horse at 15 months old; by 12, he was breaking wild horses, and by 20, he had built a solid reputation on the rodeo circuit riding broncos. By 22, he experienced the terrible accident that ended his bronco riding career and launched the beginnings of the film. Brady met filmmaker Chloe Zhao went she came to the reservation to make her debut film. After hearing Brady’s story, she decided to turn it into The Rider.
Unlike normal three act narratives, The Rider follows Brady’s life during only one act. With a metal plate in his head and doctor’s orders never to return to the saddle, Brady finds himself wandering around the reservation with little to occupy his time. In a cruel twist of fate, Brady’s brain damage given him a strange symptom: one of his hands occasionally locks into a clenched fist, physically unable to let go of whatever he is gripping. This leads to some problems when he tries to make some extra money training horses for some local ranchers.
While trying to figure out his life, Brady also has to deal with his kid sister, Lilly who has Asperger’s syndrome, and his closest friend, Lane Scott, a former rodeo rider who was in catastrophic car accident that left him in a rehab facility, paralyzed and mute. Brady’s dad spends most of the movie drinking away the rent money.
This film is not exactly entertaining. The Rider is a neo-Western that sits somewhere on the line between fiction and documentary. After watching immersive film, you will leave either thinking it was awful or you will be an emotional wreck. Visually, the movie is stunning. South Dakota is full of stunning landscapes, gorgeous windswept plains and the towering mountains. The gorgeous natural beauty of South Dakota is juxtaposed with the depressing poverty of the Indian Reservation. All the scenes involving Brady at home showcase the ugly side of crippling poverty and the few economic opportunities available for injured cowboys without a high school diploma.
The film ends on a very depressing note. In real life, the actual Brady had a few positive things happen to him after the events depicted in the film. He got married, had a kid, and started a successful small business. None of these events are depicted in the movie. Overall, this film was a gorgeously shot film, all the more impressive given the nearly non-existent budget. Going with nonprofessional actors infuses the narrative with an earthiness and originality that comes from not having any experience pretending to be someone else. The downside is a lot of the dialogue feels both rushed and slow due to poor timing. As independent films go, The Rider is confidently shot and a solid sophomore attempt by Chloe Zhao. Just do not expect a happy viewing experience. You will feel a deep, crushing sadness over wasted potential and young lives forever ruined.