NYFF Film Review: ‘The Rider’ Depicts Broken Dreams and Intimate Characters

2017 New York Film Festival: A quiet character study, “The Rider” is almost documentary-like in its approach. In following a very particular type of person, within a very particular type of community, we have a movie that could easily feel niche. It’s a credit to all involved that the themes handled here feel completely universal. Cowboys and rodeo riders don’t have all that much in common with city folk on the surface, but when you look beneath, you find plenty. That’s the theme on display here.

There’s a kinship here to other character studies like “The Wrestler,” particularly in how your job defines who you are. There are moments very much on the nose here in “The Rider,” like literally having a character unable to let go of things, but it works due to the realism on display. Had you been told this was a documentary, you might not doubt it. Having an actual family playing these fictional roles certainly helps somewhat. The verisimilitude is a big part of why this title is worthy of a recommendation here at the New York Film Festival.

Taking place in America’s heartland, specifically South Dakota, we follow Brady Blackburn (Brady Jandreau), a cowboy who recently suffered a serious head injury at the rodeo. Lucky to be alive, he’s urged by his doctor, as well as his father Wayne (Tim Jandreau), to stay off a horse. Riding defines who Brady is though, something few seem to understand. Close to his sister Lilly (Lilly Jandreau), who suffers from Asperger’s, Brady nonetheless lacks a purpose or will to go on when not riding. The steel plate in his head and a heavy scar is a constant reminder of what has happened, but all he wants to do is get back at it. The fact is, he doesn’t feel like a man anymore. Will he find a new identity? Will he risk it all to get back on a horse? The plot is minimal, but the emotions are heavy.

For non-actors, all of the performances in “The Rider” are totally on point. In the lead role, Brady Jandreau, a real horse trainer with a real plate in his head, the 20-year-old has led a life that closely reflects this character. That fact really helps hit home every emotional mark in the film. You believe Brady is defined by being a cowboy, and the advice to quit while he’s ahead is properly heartbreaking. Tim Jandreau provided gruff support as the worried father who can’t fully express how he feels, while Lilly Jandreau is a ray of sunshine. Supporting performances include Cat Clifford and Lane Scott, but this is the Jandreau’s show.

Director and writer Chloé Zhao could easily have made a documentary here. That point is worth hammering home again because of how gritty and real it all feels. “The Rider” showcases Zhao as an expert chronicler of the American man. Cinematographer Joshua James Richards captures it all in an artful yet no-frills way. In many ways, this feels like a modern western, full of quiet solitude and internal struggle. That being said, one scene involving Brady’s horse is a straight up tearjerker. Consider yourself warned.

Overall, “The Rider” is deep and heavy without being overwhelming. It won’t be the flashiest title at NYFF, but there’s a chance it winds up being one of the better ones to play at the fest. If character studies set in America’s heartland are your thing, this is a new one to look forward to. It doesn’t have a release date just yet, but as it continues a run on the festival circuit, it will gain a number of new fans. Watch out for this one.

“The Rider” will screen at the New York Film Festival on Oct. 12 and currently has not set a release date.

GRADE: (★★★)