First it was trains, then home invasions. Now horses are having the latest cinematic moment of 2018.
And while writer/director Chloé Zhao’s The Rider is in many ways another downer of an equine movie, unlike Lean On Pete, the concept of non-professional actors playing versions of themselves imbues the melancholy with a soulfulness that trained performers can only hope to achieve.
Brady Jandreau stars as Brady Blackburn, a star rodeo rider whose recent severe head injury has sidelined him for a spell. A real-life survivor of being thrown from a horse and having the animal step on and crush his skull, Jandreau imbues his alter ego with a ghostly presence, clearly haunted by the trauma and what it means for his future.
Mired in a toxic masculine milieu of which he was once a celebrity, Brady endures peer pressure applied by his ignorant buddies who ask if “a little knock on the head” is going to keep him down.
Despite a strong desire to literally get back on the horse, his ability to do so is another story and Jandreau — as may be expected from someone who’s essentially lived this tale, yet is nonetheless remarkable considering his amateur acting status — excels at conveying Brady’s painful mix of emotions.
Until competing is again a reality, Brady resumes his other top skill of breaking and training horses, and though he experiences a fair amount of success in coming back to that field — work that produces beautiful shots of him riding across the plains — he encounters obstacles there as well.
In turn, The Rider somewhat handicaps itself with cyclical plotting in which Brady makes promising progress, only to encounter a new/old setback. But considering how crucial his brain is to the story and the unchanging relationships with his borderline-alcoholic father and special-needs little sister (also portrayed by his actual family members), there’s a sense that Brady must recognize the insanity of repeating his mistakes and alter his behavior if he expects something new to occur.
Hanging over it all is Brady’s bond with fellow rider Lane Scott (playing himself), now barely able to move or communicate in a long-term rehabilitation facility. The legitimate survivor provides a powerful cautionary tale for Brady, and like the rest of the film he’s captured with Zhao’s caring yet honest lens and storytelling that miraculously never come off as exploitative.
Grade: B-plus. Rated R. Now playing at Grail Moviehouse
(Photo: Sony Pictures Classics)