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The Rider

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97% on RT


$42k opening weekend


Westerns have a long tradition of being a medium for Americans to self mythologize and for others to explore that mythology. From the classics of John Wayne and Sergio Leone, to modern entries from the Coen Brothers and Denis Villeneuve, the best westerns use the American landscape to contrast the heights of our potential and idealism from the hardships and burdens of our reality.
 The Rider accomplishes both. Telling a distinctly American story, a story of self mythologization, set against the breathtaking great plains, it's also a story that doesn't veer away from the cruel and deeply unforgiving reality we've built. It's a film that comes from the last place you'd expect, but wields an indisputable authenticity. Powerful and beautiful, and it's one of the best films of the year.
 Chloé Zhao is not who anyone should rightfully expect to make a western. Born and raised in Bejing with very little exposure to western films, much less westerns in particular, she moved to South Dakota to tell stories. She became enraptured by a local cowboy, Brady Blackburn, who stars in The Rider as Brady Jandreau. Much of the film is like that; only slightly removed from reality, even bordering on documentary. Brady's real life family play his family on screen, his friends play his friends. His injuries in the film are real, and so are all his interactions with horses. Shot on South Dakota's Lakota-Sioux Pine Ridge Reservation, the poorest county in America, there is a realism here impossible to fake. Some of the film's authenticity does come at a cost. With virtually no professional actors in the cast, the acting can be pretty rough at times, even distractingly so. It's a small price to pay compared to the thrill of watching Brady tame an actual wild horse in real time, but it's part of the experience.
 For all it's realism, it's not a telling of the real Brady's story. Chloé Zhao took his life as a starting point and wrote a compelling narrative drama from those pieces. The Rider is a story of self reflection and a search for meaning. A study of a man desperate for agency and the forces that conspire against him. The story centers around Brady's head injury, and being told that he could no longer ride horses or compete in rodeos. As a talented rider he's being asked to give up the only thing he knows, his only opportunity to make something of himself. Thanks to the delicate touch of the director and the magnetism of the protagonist, The Rider is able to communicate all that with nuance and grace. It's small and it's slow, but most of all it's a touching film that I keep revisiting in my head, long after having seen it.
 The Rider is still in theaters, and I'd recommend seeking it out if you're lucky enough to have it playing in your area. If not the best info I could find is that it might hit VOD in mid August. If you're interested in The Rider or Chloé Zhao, I also recommend checking out this piece in Rolling Stone or her interview on The Treatment.

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  • 6 months later...

I finally got around to seeing this, and I was kinda blown away. The use of non-actors gives it a documentary feel at times, which really heightens the emotional impact. And you're not destracted during scenes like the horse training. That's just a guy doing his job, and it's beautiful. 


Definitely near the top of my 2018 list.

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