“Mama, don’t let your babies grow up to be cowboys.” In the wide-open country of the South Dakota Badlands, there isn’t much of a choice about whether you grow up to be a cowboy. A recipient of four nominations at the 2018 Independent Spirit Awards, The Rider, which premiered at the 2017 Cannes Film Festival, is a gripping drama about one young cowboy who is forced to find a new path after a traumatic injury. Performed by inexperienced thespians with a relatively new filmmaker in writer/director/producer Chloé Zhao, The Rider is at first glance a work of below average theater with sluggish pacing. However, with a second look you will see something that is profound and gut-wrenching.
It’s the middle of the night when young competitive bronco rider and horse trainer Brady Blackburn (Brady Jandreau) awakens from a bad dream. We soon realize he has endured a terrible injury when he pulls a bandage off the side of his head that’s covering a long row of metal staples. To the dismay of his alcoholic/gambling addicted father, Wayne (Tim Jandreau), Brady checked himself out of the hospital shortly after awakening from a coma, fulfilling the creed of “cowboying up.”
To counter his headaches, vomiting, and hand seizures, Brady takes a prescription drug cocktail along with a lot of marijuana. Despite his symptoms, Brady keeps convincing himself that he will some day compete in the arena again. Part of this is motivated by his ignorant friends who encourage him to keep riding and who tell him that he essentially just needs to rub some dirt on it and get back in the saddle. One friend tells him that he must “ride through the pain.” Never mind the fact that he has a steel plate in his skull now.
Of all the actors, Brady Jandreau does the most credible job as he infuses a sense of bewilderment, frustration, and stubbornness into a character who doesn’t know where he fits in. A part-time job at a grocery store only makes him feel worse yet he is determined to take care of his autistic sister, Lilly (Lilly Jandreau). What seems to hold him back from diving back into his old world is the visits he has with another young cowboy whose brain injury was so traumatic that he can no longer speak and must stay in a nursing facility. Brady’s stubbornness and the desire to “cowboy up” place him at an identity crossroads: risk his life by going back to riding or doing the brave thing and carve out a new life.
The Rider is an odd work of cinema because I found myself both wanting it to end and not being able to take my eyes off the silver screen. It taps brilliantly into the psyche of young men trying to make a living at a brutal sport that’s a lingering reminder of days long ago when the west was still wild. There are times when the story feels a bit like a horse training video and Zhao is so determined to give us a feel for South Dakota’s wide-open spaces that she beats us over the head with it. However, it doesn’t detract from what appears to be sheer madness on the parts of these young men.
Overall, don’t worry about letting your babies grow up to be cowboys. Just saddle up and enjoy what is a powerful emotional ride.
On a letter grade scale from “A” being excellent to “F” for failing, The Rider receives a B.
The Rider is rated R and has a running time of 104 minutes.
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