@Filmhouse, Edinburgh from Fri 28 Sep 2018

Shattering the old platitude about getting straight back on the horse, Chloé Zhao’s second film is a visually arresting and ruggedly authentic drama about the fragility of the body and the indefatigability of the spirit.  Young rodeo rider Brady (Brady Jandreau) is in recovery after a horrific injury that leaves him with a plate in his head and a spasm in his hand.  Told that another accident could kill him, The Rider follows his attempt to get his life back on track and the soul-searching that comes with it, as he questions his future, his masculinity and his very identity.

At first glance The Rider seems to slot neatly into a familiar milieu of inspirational drama about overcoming adversity; a type that has given us the likes of Rust and BoneBleed for This, and Stronger in just the last few years.  It does indeed follow some of the familiar beats of hope, setback and acceptance of those films, but it also taps into the great legacy of the Western, which lends a mythic quality to Brady’s very personal journey and Zhao’s intensely naturalistic storytelling.

The reason for this realism is that The Rider is a fictionalised account of Brady Jandreau‘s own story.  He plays a version of himself, with his father, autistic younger sister, and friends all appearing as themselves too.  This take on real life leads to an unforced and relaxed feel to the performances that isn’t always there when filmmakers use non-professional actors.  Brady’s natural taciturnity in the face of his predicament melts away in his interactions with his strident, live-wire sister Lily, and his relationship with his friend Lane, who suffered brain damage after a bull-riding accident, is a quiet heart-breaker miles removed from the overt emotional manipulation of a million Hollywood weepies.  It’s also a devastating reminder of the very real danger of this way of live and adds a constant sense of tension to the movie without having to disrupt its gentle rhythms.

The same subtle dramatic pulse is also present in the extraordinary scenes of Brady training horses.  His real-life passion and experience shine through, as do the empathy and skill of Zhao and cinematographer Joshua James Richards.  There is a Stubbs-like eye for the horses that echoes Brady’s love for the beasts, and this is necessary to pull the audience into his singular eccentric world, and to root for him.  It helps that Brady has a natural charisma that draws in the camera with limpet attraction.

The lilting poetry that Zhao adopts may not be for everyone.  Beside the brief whiplash violence of the rodeo scenes The Rider is a low-key piece of Americana that mixes earthy realism with the odd expressionistic flourish and painterly landscapes.  It also ditches easy cathartic triumphalism in favour of a more wistful stoicism and a tone of cautious hope.  It may prove less satisfying to those seeking a more standard sense of release, but the feelings Zhao evokes are both genuine and absolutely right for Brady’s story.