Here's a movie that's in no rush to work a path into your head and heart. It's the intent of Chinese-American filmmaker Chloé Zhao to carve a story out of the real lives of the people she puts on screen; her docu-fiction technique was what distinguished her striking 2015 feature debut Songs My Brothers Taught Me, set among the Lakota Sioux in South Dakota's Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. Zhao's follow-up is set in the same area, and again uses non-pro actors to achieve a realism Hollywood can only dream of achieving. Once The Rider hooks you – and believe me, it will – there's no way you will ever forget it.
The remarkable Brady Jandreau – a star in the making with no acting experience to lean on – tackles the central role of Lakota cowboy Brady Blackburn, a 20-year-old saddle-bronc rider and horse trainer who lives for the rodeo. Then a bronc bucks him hard in the skull and puts him in a three-day coma; the doc says another kick like that will kill him. As it is, Brady, his fingers gnarled in a permanent curl, is already feeling a dizziness and weakness as foreign to him as a desk job. Zhao knew Brady before and after his similar real-life accident and uses – notice we don't say exploits – his feelings about how competition define a life to construct a film of touching gravity and rare grace.
She also enlisted the actor's own family and friends, playing barely fictionalized versions of themselves to add to the authenticity. That's Tim Jandreau as Brady's hardcase gambler father and Lilly Jandreau as his on-the-spectrum sister, whose emotions flow as freely as the white river on the reservation. Tensions rise when Dad – Mom is dead – sells his son's favorite horse just to keep a roof over their heads. Even in a beat-up trailer, a day-to-day existence is difficult to maintain since Brady's rodeo earnings dry up.
Zhao never resorts to crass manipulation and tearjerking to hold audience attention. The soul of The Rider resides in its people, proud members of the Lower Brule Sioux Tribe. They include Brady's best friend Lane (Lane Scott), a bull rider paralyzed by a car accident that injured his brain and keeps him in rehab, a shadow of his former self. Brady finds solace for a while in training wild horses, a job he’s being doing since childhood when he showed a natural empathy for building trust in animals that won't be saddled and forced to conform. In these training scenes, Zhao and cinematographer Joshua James Richards achieve a delicate visual beauty that beggars description.
Set against the stunning vistas of the American heartland, The Rider explores the physical and psychological impact on a modern cowboy who feels useless if he can't do what he was born to do. Should he risk his life for his idea of what gives him value? Zhao explores these questions with an artist's eye and a deep respect for the dignity of what makes us human. Her film is as indelible as it is unmissable.