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With: Brady Jandreau, Tim Jandreau, Lilly Jandreau, Lane Scott
Written by: Chloé Zhao
Directed by: Chloé Zhao
MPAA Rating: R for language and drug use
Running Time: 104
Date: 04/20/2018

The Rider (2018)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Gift Horse

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Recently Featured at SF Film Festival and opening Friday in Bay Area theaters, Chloe Zhao's The Rider is a remarkable, deeply moving melding of fact and fiction.

The movie's main character Brady Blackburn is played by real-life rodeo rider Brady Jandreau. In 2016, Jandreau was thrown from a horse and his head grazed by a hoof, fracturing his skull. Now the onscreen Brady deals with the aftermath.

With metal stitches holding his skull together, he is told he can no longer ride. But when his very identity is tied up with riding, what does that mean?

In one scene, three pals take him for a night of drinking in the desert. They sit around a campfire and swap rodeo stories. This is all, and everything, to these men.

At the same time, Brady's father Wayne (Tim Jandreau) must sell the family horse to make ends meet, and Brady's sister Lilly (Lilly Jandreau), who has an intellectual disability, must be looked after. It must be mentioned that Lilly is Brady's real-life sister and Tim is their real-life father.

Brady lands a job stacking shelves in a store, which he does with purpose. A young rodeo fan spots him among the brightly-lit aisles and asks for an autograph. Brady encourages the lad, while buried in the deepest regions of his performance is an unbearable sadness, regret, and perhaps even rage.

But in another sequence, Brady reluctantly agrees to help a man break a wild colt. Zhao films this in a long, loving scene, showing Brady's long-learned skills, a knowledge of horses that is simply so deep and practiced that it's like watching a great musician.

Getting back behind the reins allows Brady to begin thinking that maybe — hang what the doctors say — he can somehow work with horses once again.

As a counterpoint, The Rider features another real-life figure, Lane (Lane Scott), a star rodeo rider who is now paralyzed. Brady visits him regularly, helping with his physical therapy — one time setting up a kind of indoor saddle to allow Lane to "ride" again — hugging him and calling him "brother."

These scenes are presented, amazingly, without pity or guilt; the focus is instead on kindness and empathy.

What Zhao has done with The Rider may sound simple, but she has walked the most delicate of tightropes and done it with grace.

One only has to consider the sheer number of dime-a-dozen "based on a true story" movies (or the more impressive-sounding "inspired by true events") that play just like regular fiction movies; they are, actually, fiction movies.

Sometimes, brave filmmakers try to cast "real people" as themselves, re-creating their stories, as with Clint Eastwood's recent The 15:17 to Paris, only to realize that "real people" are not trained actors and cannot act. Playing yourself on film isn't as easy as it looks.

Indeed, if Zhao were a more traditional filmmaker she would have told the story of the events leading up to the rodeo injury, showing the actual accident, etc.

But instead she has chosen to focus on its effect, the inherent emotions. And, with no need for showing off, she has guided a slowly simmering, truly touching performance from Brady Jandreau.

Whatever Brady's decision, it — unlike most other movie stories — will likely not be anything fixed or final. Just like anyone, he will have days of galloping and days of standing still and he will have to weather it all.

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