Quiet and serene, director Chloé Zhao has pieced together a modern masterpiece.
A biting drama is only as good as its cast and screenplay. It doesn't matter how gritty a director positions the film, with immaculate production design or a soaring score, if the players aren't on board and the words aren't sincere and enigmatic, the drama will get swallowed up. Oscar bait films often fail at this technique, finding something true and honest and human in the film's subjects. But, Chloé Zhao has done just that. By assembling a worthy cast, of mostly unknowns, and finding the genuineness in each and every line that's stuttered throughout, she's crafted a masterpiece in The Rider.
After suffering a near fatal head injury, Brady Blackburn (Brady Jandreau), must find his way through rehabilitation and search for his identity once again. He was a mastered rodeo rider, having learned the tricks of the trade from his parents. Like many in mid-America, survival is meat of a person's life. And, Brady takes to it like a dog to water. He's determined to climb back on top of the horse, both literally and proverbially. His drive finds him breaking a bronco for a nearby farmer and forming a bond with the horse. In what becomes a boy-and-dog tale, but with a horse, Brady matures into a man before our eyes, all while learning when to surrender to your feelings and when to toughen up.
What's apparent from the beginning is that the treat wrapped into this picture is director Zhao's use of true-to-life performers to sell the story. As the main character, the real-life Brady brings a natural mystique to his role that's on one end very endearing and innocent, but on the other end slightly pitiful. His family's history feels rich in hard-working laborers and bad misfortune. In fact, the poverty in which our character finds himself serves as part of his motivation to get back on the horse before he's truly healed. It's not his physical ailments, though, that need the most healing, it's the baggage of a hard-pressed life on an emotional soul that becomes the center.
Shot amidst the beauty of the badlands of South Dakota, Zhao's masterful touch comes in letting her actors discover the deepest affectations of survival at the most gentle of paces. It never feels overly slow or daunting and it escapes any notion of pretentiousness. Instead, the beauty unfolds as the drama carries through. Even the most emotional of scenes carry with it enough truth that it hits the mark beyond what any top talent could have created.
Though she's a somewhat new voice in cinema, Zhao has already left her mark on modern cinema with this sweeping tribute to sustenance and human survival. The delicious cinematography from Joshua James Richards and the indelible score from Nathan Halpern are added bonuses to this entire adventure.