Thoughts on The Rider (2018)

Editor’s note: This piece is part of a series on the 2018 Taipei Film Festival.

The merits of The Rider (2018) mostly arise from its actors and subject matter, surprising not for its authenticity (it’s almost entirely based on true events) but for how telegenic (cinegenic?) these non-professional actors are. The craft evidenced by writer-director-producer Chloé Zhao is great when she improvises and adapts to the actors and situation, but less so when she has complete control—for one, there were far too many close-ups, perhaps in anticipation of the streaming market. In the mind’s impression, though, any imperfections are outweighed by the few moments of transcendence Zhao and cinematographer Joshua James Richards manage to capture: Brady (Brady Jandreau, way too young to be so convincing as a world-wearier Chris Pratt), coaxing a stallion into being broken in, riding a horse with the setting sun to their back, and whistling for his horse one last time. The horseback galloping scenes in particular are moving for how simple they are: no quick cuts or flashy angles to convey speed or excitement, just a steady tracking shot of man and horse that, already bristling with speed, shifts the focus onto this inseparable partnership from time immemorial.

It’s also an exquisitely dialectical film. We feel for this community’s relative poverty and lack of opportunities. But what opportunities they do have are mostly of the kind that yields satisfying, hands-on work (unlike writing film reviews). Yet the danger of this work is what leads to such debilitating injuries. But the drive to recovery and rehabilitation stems from the urge to continue with the work, this work that gives their lives meaning, even though it could kill them, and that pays them best, though they have no wish to use the money to leave. Even though there are so few opportunities here. Et cetera. Remarkably, Zhao somehow manages to recast this vicious cycle as a virtuous one, making an envious crowd of the audience.

Noah Waldman observes how the threat of Brady being reinjured imbues every scene he shares with a horse with abject terror, so that we’re actively rooting against his recovery. The same terror, mixed with pity, strikes us when we realize that Lane Scott’s (himself) main rehabilitation tool is a mock saddle. But, again, that’s what motivates him to recover. (The film doesn’t tell us what happened to him, because it was in fact a car crash.) The Rider breaks your heart and mends it at the same time.

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