The Rider: A Kick of Reality, by Jeremy Elder

Hollywood has shown little to moderate success when using everyday people to act in a true story about themselves. While it is a unique tactic to increase box office sales and create intrigue, the quality of films tends to suffer under this structure. In the past we’ve seen Act of Valor and the recent 15:17 to Paris. Both ended moderate success, but only lived up to be action blockbusters with no major impact on audiences. However, Chloe Zhao’s The Rider has set a new precedent for the quality and impact made possible through people acting out their own narratives on film.

Audiences may not be aware that almost every character in the film is played by the person who experienced it firsthand. The film’s impact goes beyond the choices in casting, so there is no need to push for it. Using real actors is not a crutch for selling more tickets, but instead a catalyst for truthful, immersive filmmaking. The Rider doesn’t include a single weak performance from any actor, including disabled actors Lilly Jandreau and Lane Scott, who portray flawless renditions of their own realities on screen.

The film tells the story of Brady Jandreau, fictionalized as Brady Blackburn, a rising star in the rodeo circuit who suffers a career-ending head injury. His injury makes him question his purpose, his masculinity, and his identity within his community. This type of plot may seem played out in other movies, but director Chloe Zhao tell the story with such truth and authority that keeps the audience invested. In preparation for the film, Zhao dedicated months of research to uncover the heart of this rural community, and many more to translate that into a condensed film. Born in Beijing and attending high school in London, she doesn’t have a wealth of knowledge about rodeos or training horses. Her experience as a director allowed her to salvage the most human elements of the town. The process may have been long, but the work shows in the final product.

What truly gives the film its remarkable qualities is the cathartic immersion into the life and mind of a cowboy. Slow-paced, mundane activities are juxtaposed against the fast, exciting energy of the rodeo. Accents and costumes reveal the cross-section between Caucasians and Native Americans living in the area. You leave feeling gruff, raw, and vulnerable, as the film does not shy away from the exploring the culture’s effect on the individual’s psyche. The film inverts the cinematic cliché in which everyone begs the athlete to quit competing after an injury but he/she keeps wanting to go back. Instead, Brady’s community eagerly awaits his return, despite potentially fatal outcomes. Ultimately, he is torn between saving his own life and continuing his legacy as a cowboy. When the audience becomes immersed in the life of the cowboy, the difference between what is right and what is wrong becomes as unclear to us as it is to Jandreau. The Rider invites you into a world you didn’t know the depth of but it pulls you in completely.

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