When you look at a culture from the outside, it can seem like a whole other world. Most of us might look upon the spectacle of “bronco riders” with faint bemusement, or even horror: why would men, young men, volunteer to have themselves thrown around by horses and cattle for a crowd’s amusement? But when you’ve been born into a tradition, a culture, it’s a whole other story.
Chloé Zhao’s new film The Rider does an extraordinary thing. It immerses us in the world of rural North Dakota, and portrays young bronco riders without a hint of condescension. This is achieved, primarily, by allowing the cowboys to play themselves; and with an always empathetic eye, she probes the masculine trappings of this dangerous world, with sensitivity and deeply moving grace.
Brady Jandreau is the captivating, quiet young soul at the heart of this shaggy narrative, which prioritises lived-in experience over contrivance. He’s passionate about riding, but was recently subjected to a nasty injury, that gave him a plate in his head and a habit for his right hand to clench up involuntarily. He insists to his cocky young friends that it’ll only be temporary, that he’ll be back in the saddle in no time, but we know that’s not true – and his father and mentally-challenged sister fear that he’ll destroy himself out of stubborn pride.
It’s become a cliché to describe such docu-dramas as “poetic”, but that’s exactly what The Rider is. The coarse fur of a horse’s mane, the magic of swaying wheat fields at golden hour, the silhouette of a Stetson against the prairie at dusk; they’re all evoked with earnest, naturalistic flair. And the core conceit of a young man struggling to come to terms with the fact that his life will not conform to his expectations is heartbreaking – especially when we see the talent and passion he’s cultivated in taming horses.
To be fair, The Rider has its flaws. While Zhao’s reluctance to impose too heavily in proceedings is impressive, there is a substantial sag in the second act, where sequences and conversations become repetitive, and fail to complicate what we, as an audience, already understand. Things pull together nicely for the conclusion, though, which signs off on a perfectly bittersweet, elegiac note. The Rider is a small film, though one that’s all the more charming for it; by the time you notice how much has been wrought from so little, you’ll already be in bits.