Review: Visiting filmmaker Chloé Zhao’s newest film ‘The Rider’ is a compelling force of nature

Originally Posted on Emerald Media via UWIRE

The land near the South Dakota Pine Ridge Reservation is grandiose and majestic, but it’s also cruel. Violent storms kick up dust around cowboy Brady Blackburn (Brady Jandreau), who gazes out at the scenery as he struggles to come to terms with a life-changing injury that may end his rodeo career. This wordless, powerful scene sets the tone for filmmaker Chloé Zhao’s latest film, “The Rider.”

Last Wednesday was the final day of Zhao’s two-week engagement guest teaching the Art of Directing course on campus — she referred to her students as her, “pride and joys” — and Zhao topped it off by answering questions after a free screening of “The Rider” at the EMU Redwood Auditorium.

“It’s about showing you why Brady is risking his life to live this way,” Zhao said during the Q&A. “And to do that, I must show you why he loves not just the animal, but the land that he lives on.”

Zhao explained that she met Jandreau on the Pine Ridge Reservation while filming her debut feature, “Songs My Brothers Taught Me,” and the two became fast friends. After a horse stepped on his head and crushed his skull during a rodeo, Zhao decided to make a film chronicling his story. This became “The Rider,” a heartbreaking yet hopeful take on what it means to control one’s own destiny.

Throughout the film, Blackburn is surrounded by other injured cowboys as he tries to recover. His best friend Lane Scott is a former rodeo star who is now paralyzed, living in a rehabilitation center in Nebraska. Though Scott was actually injured in a car accident, he still serves as a reminder of what could happen to Blackburn if he continues to ride.

But perhaps the most important relationship to Blackburn is the one between him and a wild horse named Apollo. Blackburn sees himself in Apollo, as both crave the rush of freedom but neither can have it. In one scene, Blackburn soliloquizes about how a rider’s sole purpose in life is to ride, but a horse’s purpose is to roam free. While this implies that the rider could be seen as a parasite, Blackburn and Apollo seem more like a symbiotic pair, inexplicably tethered to one another.

“I’m lucky because I’m working with one of the best horse trainers in the whole region,” said Zhao. “Everybody sends their horse to Brady.”

Many scenes featuring Blackburn training wild horses could not have been done with a professional Hollywood actor — the special connection that Jandreau has with these animals is communicated through controlled, loving stares and careful movements. The use of untrained actors also comes with hindrances, as Zhao must be confined to direct within the limited range of acting that they can pull off, working around their own experiences.

Fortunately, Zhao’s strong directing in this film proves that she’s up to the challenge. “The Rider” is now playing at the Bijou Art Cinemas (492 E 13th Ave).

Follow Mia on Twitter @MIACINO.

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