After a tragic riding accident, young cowboy Brady (Brady Jandreau), once a rising star of the rodeo circuit, is warned that his competition days are over. Back home, Brady finds himself wondering what he has to live for when he can no longer do what gives him a sense of purpose: to ride and compete. With little desire or alternatives for a different way of life, Brady’s sense of inadequacy mounts as he is unable to ride or rodeo – the essentials of being a cowboy. In an attempt to regain control of his fate after suffering a near fatal head injury, Brady undertakes a search for new identity and tries to redefine his idea of what it means to be a man in the heartland of America.
The best American movie this critic has seen in the past year, Chloé Zhao’s “The Rider,” is the kind of rare work that seems to attain greatness through an almost alchemical fusion of nominal opposites. An account of rodeo riders on a South Dakota reservation, it is so fact-based that it almost qualifies as a documentary. Yet the film’s style, its sense of light and landscape and mood, simultaneously give it the mesmerizing force of the most confident cinematic poetry.
There is a special pleasure in observing a thing done well. In several long, crucial scenes in the middle of “The Rider,” Chloé Zhao’s beautiful second feature, we look on as a young man named Brady Blackburn trains horses, including Apollo, a stubborn and high-spirited colt. A rodeo champion recovering from a serious head injury, Brady understands the animals in a way that suggests both long practice and natural intuition. His total absorption in the task at hand, his graceful combination of discipline and talent, his unshowy confidence in his own skills — all of these are signs that we are watching an artist at work.
Make that two artists. Ms. Zhao’s commitment to her craft — she knows how to take care and when to take risks — matches Brady’s. She has an eye for landscape and an acute sensitivity to the nuances of storytelling, a bold, exacting vision that makes “The Rider” exceptional among recent American regional-realist films. Like her debut, “Songs My Brothers Taught Me,” it is alive with empathy and devoid of pity or condescension. There is struggle and disappointment in Brady’s life, but rather than pin him and the other characters down in a tableau of misery, Ms. Zhao honors their essential freedom and understands what is important to them.
The movie takes place on the wide, windy Dakota prairie, where Brady lives in a trailer with his sister, Lilly (Lilly Jandreau), and their father, Wayne (Tim Jandreau). The actors are nonprofessionals playing versions of themselves — members of a Native American family that has seen its share of hardship. Brady and Lilly, who has an intellectual disability, lost their mother to cancer a few years before. More recently, Brady’s skull was fractured by a bronco in the ring, leaving him with a frightening scar on the side of his head and neurological damage that causes seizures in his right hand. “No more rodeos and no more riding,” a doctor warns, and it’s clear that the injury to Brady’s head has also wounded his morale and his sense of who he is.