“The Rider” begins on an ordinary morning, as Brady (Brady Jandreau) wakes up and goes through his usual morning routine — making breakfast, brushing his teeth, removing the staples from his head wound.
It’s a shock to see that 3-inch gash on the top of Brady’s head. Brady is a rodeo rider who suffered a severe head injury after being thrown from a bronc. He’s lucky to be alive, but the doctors say getting up on a horse again could be fatal.
Chloe Zhao’s film, though technically a drama, is a somewhat fictionalized depiction of what Jandreau really went through. That head wound is real, and so is his emotional turmoil. His friends and family play versions of themselves, including his best friend Lane Scott, a fellow rodeo champion now suffering from acute brain damage.
This thin line in the dirt between fiction and documentary may frustrate purists of either genre. There was some controversy recently when the film screened as part of a documentary film festival. But “The Rider” feels emotionally true, an authentic look inside the heart of young man who only ever wanted to do one thing in his life, and then was told he couldn’t.
Zhao’s low-key drama captures the day-to-day reality of a modern-day cowboy — the struggle to pay the bills, the camaraderie of the riders, the hard work of training and riding horses. Zhao’s camera is a fly on the wall in cramped trailers, roadhouse bars, dirty stables. And then the camera will capture a breathtaking shot of Brady on the plains with one of his beloved horses, the sun glinting behind them, and suddenly all the romance of the cowboy life comes flooding back. We feel in our bones how hard it is for Brady to give this life up.
Jandreau, in a beautifully underplayed performance, captures the conflict within Brady. He speaks in clipped tones of the reality of his situation, but his eyes give away his heartbreak. He sells off his favorite horse because his family needs the money, but can’t quite bring himself to pawn his riding gear.
And, every time he’s around a horse, such as breaking in a neighbor’s jittery colt, you can feel the bond he has with the animal. Riding is a death sentence for Brady, and he knows it. But what kind of life does he have without horses?
That this is Jandreau’s story makes “The Rider” extra special. His ease with horses, his respect and care with the animals, is not something that even the most devoted actor could have faked. His father, Tim Jandreau, is completely convincing as the brusque but not heartless patriarch. But the relationship in the film that sticks is Brady’s tender bond with his 15-year-old sister, Lily. Lily has developmental disabilities, and is utterly guileless, happily singing made-up songs as she rides around in her brother’s truck.
Lily’s uncomplicated devotion to Brady pierces his masculine armor, revealing his tender inner core. “The Rider” is a masterful character study that honors but doesn’t romanticize a vanishing way of life.