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The Rider

“He’s mad that trusts in the tameness of a wolf, a
horse’s health, a boy’s love, or a whore’s oath.”

Søren Kierkegaard once wrote that the purity of the heart is to will one thing; and, in The Rider, Chloé Zhao penetrates richly into the center of a man’s indelible struggle between the physical conditions of bodies and the mental revulsion towards physical damage.

The Rider begins in the early stages of Brady Jandreau’s recovery after a riding accident leaves him unable to compete on the rodeo circuit and largely impaired by neurological mishaps. He searches for new purpose during his recovery, meandering around town when his life has always been about one thing: horses. His life is surrounded by a group of two types: those who would rather see him quit and those who would rather see him ride again even if it means further damage. He finds a moving space for returning to his first love when he begins training a number of unruly horses and helping his friend recover from a (similar) crippling accident. A.O. Scott (New York Times) described it well when talks about the “struggle and disappointment in Brady’s life” and his overcoming of self-pity to chase after that “essential freedom . . . important to [him].”

Zhao weaves together a fine film, intermixing the real and the fictional in creating  a story about passion and circumstances. Seemingly unsure whether she wants to shoot the film straight without the poetic gimmicks or exude the atmospheric parallel to Terrence Malick, she does both, at times loosing tempo and fluidity and making abrupt changes in scenes that deserved longer viewing. The script was dry and the language at times trite. I could not stop thinking about the (admittedly) unseemly personification to today’s cultural dynamics concerning the character of Jandreau in overcoming adversity and showing immense competence in his craft, versus his developmentally challenged sister who is constantly on the phone. His relationship with his friends was moving. His relationship with his father, underdevelopedmaking the ending difficult to accept.

Critics have been loosing their minds over this film, largely due to their consistency in inflating the scores of garbage films and now facing the absence of superlatives to describe something decent. Perhaps appropriate is that line from Julius Caesar:

But hollow men, like horses hot at hand,
Make gallant show and promise of their mettle;
But when they should endure the bloody spur,
They fall their crests, and, like deceitful jades,
Sink in the trial.

Act 4, Scene 2

I don’t feel strongly enough about the film either way to critique the sycophantic noise making because I recognize that disagreement here is warranted to some degree. Certainly giving this film a perfect review is a joke (e.g., TOP CRITICS = Colin Covert, Chandler Levack, Michael Phillips, Peter Keough, Ann Hornaday, Godfrey Cheshire), but it is a film worth taking seriously and clearly Ken Eisner (Georgia Straight) checked his brain at the door with analysis like this:

“the theme of the movie might actually be the unspoken codes of masculinity, in which something—the rocky terrain, the Indigenous people, the untamed animals—must be dominated in order for men to feel like men”

And despite the customary excitement from IndieWire in celebrating the use of first-time actors (as much as I appreciate the parallel structure with Jandreau training wild horses), the inexperience at times was palpable—in no small measure by the father who played an excellent zombie and perhaps the most atrocious single-scene I’ve seen in a very long time when Jandreau is confronted by grinning-fans who behave like they’re about to plant a whoopie cushion on his person. Keeping those actors in that scene was a reminder that Zhao has only done this once before with Songs My Brothers Taught Me.

I missed opportunity was to prolong the scenes with the breaking of Apollo (horse) from Jandreau, who clearly has the competence for illustrating the process using a documentary format (I had to remind myself that horses are not actors). Instead, Zhao, in the words of Richard Brody (New Yorker), shoots tight, truncated scenes, “edited down to illustrative sidebars” and diluted by the presence of too many performances. With a running time of under two-hours, and unlike Lean On Pete that survived on borrowed time, I would have gladly sat through another 30-minutes of horses taming.

Still, a promising female director, but a lot better work needs to be done before she starts making comparisons with Terrence Malick.


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