A subversive eulogy to the western.
The mythos surrounding the cowboy is now one that seems to belong to a bygone era, one of white hats and black hats, saloons, shoot-outs and stand-offs. Whilst The Rider (or Le Cowboy as it’s named internationally) may bear many of the visual motifs and settings of the western, but sees it brought into the 21st century where the conflict of the frontier has become leisure activities.
The Rider opens with rodeo-rider Brady (Brady Jandreau) pulling surgical staples out of his neck with a knife. He’s a broken man, a far fall from the cowboy of old. Unable to ride rodeo because of sustained injuries, he must still support his gambling-addict father and autistic sister. His friend, Lane Scott, is in a state of catatonia from a prior riding accident. The head injury that Brady suffers causes his hand to clench sporadically, unable to let go of whatever he is holding on to. Indeed, unable to ride anymore, Brady struggles to find meaning when he loses the ability to fulfil his aspirations.
Indeed, the story of The Rider follows not cowboys and indians but a very personal grappling with ambitions. Brady struggles to put aside rodeo riding, one thing that gave his life meaning, despite knowing it will eventually kill him. Director Chloe Zhao’s film is an ode to a bygone America: static shots reveal the scope and size of the Western outback, but it is now bucolic and peaceful, devoid of the conflicts of frontierism.
Chloe Zhao returns to her documentary-making roots by casting non-actors in the lead roles, Brady Jandreau, a rodeo rider, play Brady, his family plays his on-screen family, and Lane Scott is played by Lane Scott – a paraplegic from a rodeo accident. This sense of realism and authenticity really shines in the interactions with the ranch horses. As Brady tries to mount an unruly horse, it’s shocking to see this done in a single shot, no need for stunt doubles or special effects – he actually contends with dangerous animals. Watching it, I was so convinced of the films realness that I thought they’d hired cowboys, it turns out they actually did. This film is so far removed from the artifice of Hollywood it’s shocking.
The Rider bears more resemblance to a neo-realist western than any major film I can think of, it continually feels like a very real depiction of a community and men who are grappling with being left out of the mainstream culture and society, trying to understand their masculinity and their place in the world. Just as the western genre has faded and been left behind, so too have the men of this film as they try to understand what it’s all about. It’s a very spiritual film, owing to this are two very dreamy riding sequences that bookend the film, giving it a feeling of being more like a poetic eulogy than a narrative tale. It may move at a snail’s pace at points, but it builds up to being simultaneously convincing and moving, but also dreamy and spiritual. Chloe Zhao’s outing in the decay of the western, may not only be a very unique film, but the best film of the year.