The Rider must discover his own limitations in this excellent film

A Western drama
Written & directed by Chloé Zhao

When we first meet Brady (Brady Jandreau), he appears to be doing brain surgery on himself. Not quite, but he’s removing massive bandages and even metal staples from his head. You get the very strong feeling that he shouldn’t be doing this on his own.

Brady, barely an adult, has already seen his once-bright career on the rodeo circuit destroyed. An accident in the ring left him with brain damage and a metal plate where part of his scull used to be. He suffers from hand seizures. Another bad fall will probably kill him.

He understands all of this, but he’s determined to get back in the saddle.

With no previous acting experience, Jandreau gives an exceptional performance. That shouldn’t be too surprising, since writer/director Chloé Zhao based the character on Jandreau, who suffered the same accident as his barely fictitious alter ego. In fact, the entire cast is made up of non-actors, mostly Jandreau’s friends and family. Many of them play themselves to the point of using their real names.

Brady’s father is a widower, has money troubles, and possibly drinking and gambling problems, as well. But he loves his children deeply and worries considerably about his brain-damaged son. Brady’s younger sister, who has Asperger’s, seems quite happy. A friend, who Brady frequently visits, suffers from a far worse rodeo injury. He can barely talk or move.

Yet Brady insists on continuing to break in new horses, and even occasionally climb up on them. Jandreau clearly knows what he’s doing around these beautiful animals. There are several scenes, shown in long takes, where he lassos, strokes, and bonds with large, nervous beasts who could clearly kick the rest of his brains out.

The Rider is the best photographed new feature I’ve seen this year. And I’m not just talking about the beautiful scenery; that’s easy when you’re shooting the wide-open plains. But cinematographer Joshua James Richards does more than just shoot pretty pictures. Every room in every building has a feel of the people who live or work there, as well as the time of day.

The film was shot and is set on a Lakota reservation, but the film doesn’t make any big deal about that. It’s just who these people are. Many of them, including Jandreau, look mostly white; the issue doesn’t come up. Why should it? That’s not what The Rider is about.

Speaking of Jandreau’s looks, he’s gorgeous. Considering his handsome face, his charisma, and the acting talent he shows in the film (even if he’s basically playing himself), he should be able to trade in those spurs and find a new job in the movies.