This was the only new film that I saw at the Leeds Film Festival and it goes immediately into my shortlist for films of the year. I selected it solely on the basis of its cinematographer Joshua James Richardson, who had previously shot God Own’s Country (UK 2017), one of my other candidates for best of the year so far. I’m so glad that the cinematography led me to The Rider.
Writer-director Chloé Zhao was born in China, went to ‘high school’ in London and university in the US where she now lives. Her first feature Songs My Brothers Taught Me appeared in 2015, playing in the Director’s Fortnight at Cannes. It tells the story of a sibling relationship in a Sioux family on the Pine Ridge ‘Reservation’ in South Dakota. The Rider is set on the same reservation, but this film went a step further, picking up the Art Cinema Award after also playing in Cannes.
I went into the film knowing little apart from the cinematography connection and the fact that a rodeo competition was involved. I didn’t really twig the Native American background at first. I’ll admit that the first few minutes were hard-going, but I soon tuned into the film and was engrossed from then on. This is a narrative fiction feature, but it is based on the lives of real people who play characters much like themselves, so it also has distinct elements of documentary. The trio of Jandreau family members play the three members of the Blackburn family. Brady is the older of Tim’s children and he has a younger sister, Lilly. The film opens with Brady getting up in the night to remove the dressing on his head and to ease out the staples that hold it in place. We can see immediately that he has suffered a terrible wound and that his skull has been seriously gashed, requiring staples to hold it together. Brady is not going to be riding ‘bucking broncos’ or bulls for quite a while.
What makes the film so effective for me are three factors. The cinematography is marvellous and the three actors are equally wonderful. But I’m also intrigued by the coming together of different narrative modes which is so well handled by the director. There is a sense of a ‘realist family melodrama’ developed around the three family members. Lilly has what I take to be a mild form of autism (the Press Pack calls it ‘Aspergers’). The dialogue suggests that she is 14 but I’d assumed she was older. Her autism doesn’t prevent her working around the home and she is a loving companion for Brady while father Tim tries to maintain some form of income, even if it requires selling assets. The film is also a documentary drama about the life of a horse trainer/rodeo performer, with Brady soon returning to demonstrate how he can calm a wild horse and train it to accept a rider. I enjoyed these sequences very much, but I think the film finally won me over completely when I realised that it is also a Western (and the combination of Western + melodrama is an absolute winner for me).
One of my all-time favourite films is Sam Peckinpah’s Junior Bonner (US 1972), in my book Peckinpah’s best film – a family melodrama built around the rodeo circuit with Robert Preston and Ida Lupino as Steve McQueen’s estranged parents and Joe Don Baker as his entrepreneurial younger brother. The Western melodrama is often built around the father-son relationship. The female character(s) are usually the calm centres around whom the males thrash about trying to resolve macho power struggles. The rodeo life is hard and unforgiving. If you survive those few seconds on a bull or a wild horse, you can be a hero. But you can just as easily be crushed by the weight of the animal, gored by a horn or trampled on. Brady loves his sister and his horses – and his dad. But he needs to make sense of his upbringing which has stressed the manly virtues of being tough. Getting back on the horse in his current predicament of being too physically vulnerable to ride competitively is very tough. At one point he goes to visit a friend and former champ who is still a young man, but who now lives in a care home because he is so severely disabled by his injuries. But what else can Brady do that will restore his self-confidence?
What is so refreshing in the film is the sense of community. When Brady needs to get a job, he meets an employment agent who knew his late mother from her high school days (and Brady visits his mother’s grave on a rise, just like a character in a Ford Western). The narrative doesn’t focus on the Native American community as such. Feeding the gambling machines in the bar does seem to be an issue but it isn’t pushed too much. Mostly, this is a small community where people seem to get on. At one point a couple of kids approach Brady when he is working in the local supermarket. For a moment I feared they were going to photograph him in order to humiliate him, but instead they just want a selfie with a celebrity. The filmed helped me to forget Trump for a moment and restored some sense of hope for working people in the US.
One of the attractions for audiences of Westerns has always been the landscapes and Richardson shoots these beautifully in ‘Scope at what is often termed the ‘magic hour’. I must have watched hundreds of Westerns but I don’t think I’ve ever thought about the actual physical movement of either horse or rider in an abstract sense before. By this, I mean that because the Western narrative drive is so strong and I’ve never ridden a horse, I’ve never thought before about the beauty of cowboy and horse together. In Richardson’s images under Zhao’s direction, I could see the horse’s muscles working and appreciate the riding skills.
The film has been bought by Sony Classics. The last Sony Classics film that I enjoyed, Maudie, got a fairly restricted release in the UK and deserved much more, so, please, UK exhibitors and Sony, get this onto as many screens as possible. There is a press release on the site of one of my favourite distributors, Mongrel Media in Canada.
Here’s a clip from the film of Brady with Apollo: