Chloé Zhao’s dreamlike Western “The Rider” casts real people, including a rodeo cowboy who suffered a head injury when thrown from a bucking horse and was advised by doctors to never ride again. Rating: 3.5 stars out of 4.
Casting a dramatic film with nonactors is always a risky proposition; the fresh, natural presence of “real people” is sometimes outweighed by awkwardness when they have to deliver scripted dialogue. But Chloé Zhao’s dreamlike Western “The Rider” is one of those happy exceptions. Its main character is a rodeo cowboy named Brady Blackburn, played by a rodeo cowboy named Brady Jandreau, who lives on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota with his father and sister (both of whom play versions of themselves in the film). Brady, in real life, suffered a head injury when thrown from a bucking horse in 2016; he was advised by doctors to never ride again.
“The Rider” takes Brady’s story and dramatizes it, making it both universal — what would you do if you were told that the one thing you love to do is forbidden? — and very specific to a young man, a time and a place. A slight man with an impassive face, Brady comes to life in the film when he’s with a horse. A sequence in which he’s training a wild horse shows him seeming to become one with the animal — the camera, frighteningly close in the claustrophobic pen, captures Brady talking the horse down, gazing at it, teaching it to focus on his hand and voice — and reminds us that no actor could have shot a scene quite like this.
Zhao captures the quiet mood of the endless prairie that is Brady’s home — grasses whisper in the wind, faces flicker in the light of a campfire, the moon gleams like a pearl nestled in the velvet sky. Much of this film seems to take place during that magical hour between sunset and twilight, and Zhao, with cinematographer Joshua James Richards, finds painterly beauty in those blue-shot fields and feathery clouds. And Brady, rarely raising his voice above a murmur, takes us on an emotional journey, figuring out his own way forward. The plains go on forever; so, we hope, does hope.
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★★★½ “The Rider,” with Brady Jandreau, Tim Jandreau, Lilly Jandreau, Lane Scott, Cat Clifford. Written and directed by Chloé Zhao. 103 minutes. Rated R for language and drug use. Opens June 15 at Pacific Place, Grand Cinema.