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“The Rider” is a wholly unique character study

For the second week in a row, a horse centric movie is hitting theaters. That being said, they couldn’t be more dissimilar. We already spoke about Lean on Pete just a few days ago, and now The Rider gets its turn. Opening on Friday, it’s a character study that’s been making the film festival rounds for the better part of a year, building up fans and buzz with each stop. In fact, last year’s Film Independent Spirit Awards saw fit to give it a quartet of nominations. That should give you an idea the type of appreciation the flick has found. Having seen it last year at the New York Film Festival, I can report that it’s well founded praise.

In many ways, The Rider feels like a documentary. You could be mistaken for that, just going by the IMDb synopsis, which reads: “After suffering a near fatal head injury, a young cowboy undertakes a search for new identity and what it means to be a man in the heartland of America.” Furthermore, the main trio of cast members are essentially playing themselves. We follow Brady Blackburn (Brady Jandreau) as he navigates life as a cowboy forbidden from riding his horse. He’s dedicated to his disabled sister Lilly Blackburn (Lilly Jandreau) and has a conflicted relationship with his father Wayne Blackburn (Tim Jandreau), but it’s clear that on a horse is where he feels at home. It’s the only place where he does, in fact. Chloé Zhao writes and directs this effective little movie (which has a few supporting players, all of whom basically play themselves too, and are credited as such), with music by Nathan Halpern and cinematography from Joshua James Richards.

The film is quietly powerful. It takes its time, never rushing any events. Again, the doc like nature of it is apparent at all turns. In particular, Zhao’s direction, mixed with the cinematography, makes it all tragically beautiful. Throw in how compelling it is to watch the leading man Jandreau work through his real life issues on screen, and this is something wholly unique. There’s a sense that you’re viewing something true. Not as dramatic as something like The Hero or The Wrestler, it still has that same profound feeling to it. Zhao has been doing good work under the radar for years now, but with the Spirits going for this one with as much fervor as they did, her stock is definitely on the rise, and rightly so.

Expecting The Rider to replicate its Spirit Awards showing with Oscar is ludicrous, but other precursors here in 2018 could take a shine to it. To refresh your memory, the Spirits cited it with nominations in the big category of Best Feature, along with Best Director for Zhao, Best Cinematography, and Best Film Editing. It would be fair to think that the flick might do well this year in the Director field as well, among more independently minded places. The Academy likely won’t go for it, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t a worthwhile piece of cinema, because it very much is that.

This week, The Rider finally opens. The film has turned many a head, so you’ll at long last get your chance to see how it impacts you. Zhao is going places, Jandreau leaves an impact, and the experience winds up having a profound effect on many audience members. Even someone like myself who did not rave about it quite like others did can recognize its power. This is one of the smaller films of the year so far, but it’s still one of the more interesting ones. If cinema that challenges you is up your alley, this movie could be just what the doctor ordered. Give it a shot and see what you think…

Be sure to check out The Rider, beginning its theatrical run this weekend!

About Joey Magidson

A graduate of Stony Brook University (where he studied Cinema and Cultural Studies), resides in Brooklyn, New York. He contributes to several other film-related websites and is a member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association.

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