Saturday movie review: The Rider

What can I do now? Who am I? What am I worth? Is my past the best I'll ever be?

Many folks ask themselves such questions when circumstances or age put an end to beloved careers, the pursuit of dreams and goals not yet realized. The existential quandary usually rears its head around retirement age or perhaps amidst some midlife questioning.

Lakota Indian cowboy Brady Jandreau was far from retirement, not yet even near midlife, when he was forced to weather such weighty wondering. In 2016, Jandreau was riding higher and higher as a professional bronc rider on the rodeo circuit. Then a tumble from a bronc and a foot snarled in the stirrup resulted in his skull being crushed by the animal. Brady's professional riding career ended in an instant—at the age of 20.


THE RIDER is Jandreau's true story, starring Jandreau as himself, though his movie moniker is Brady Blackburn. The true story also stars true players besides Jandreau, including his dad, younger sister, fellow rodeo riders, and real-life friend and mentor Lane Scott, a former rider paralyzed and unable to speak due to his own disaster.

In spite of—or perhaps because of—director Chloé Zhao masterfully crafted a gritty and beautiful, distressing yet inspirational, powerfully poignant film based on the young man's attempt to recover from a devastating, life-changing injury. 

Brady Jandreau isn't (or wasn't) a true actor, but his scenes with his real-life developmentally challenged sister and those with his real-life paralyzed BFF and mentor are among the most moving movie moments I've seen. He's sweet, strong, and attentive to both the damaged loved ones, each confronting challenges akin to his own. I don't think any actor other than this real-life character could pull off such poignancy in the part.

Brady the man, actor or otherwise, also has heartfelt scenes with horses. His love for the animals and his gentle yet commanding way with them is another aspect I can't imagine any other actor managing as well.

Brady certainly isn't played as all sweetness and sorrow, though. As such real-life circumstances would undoubtedly deem appropriate, he exhibits the bitterness, despair and discouragement, frustration with how his life turned out. Again and again, he questions whether his life is even worth living now that he's damaged and unable to do what he loves, what he believed he was born to do. 

Due to casting of the real-life people and the true-to-the-tale plot and setting, THE RIDER feels like a documentary at times. Yet the scripted film is indeed a dramatic feature, with breathtaking cinematography and a haunting soundtrack. A dramatic feature that has garnered numerous accolades on the film festival circuit, with 13 nominations and 13 wins so far.

One need not be a rodeo wannabe or victim of tragedy for THE RIDER to resonate. We all possess, to some small (or large) degree, concerns that life hasn't turned out as planned, dreams were cut short, goals weren't achieved, glory days have come and gone. Watching Brady work through what was and what might be—or not be—going forward elicits a bit of self-reflection and examination. As well as compassion for a young kid muddling his way through a devastating blow and broken dreams with guts, grit, and grace.

Here, the star and director discuss their heartfelt film:

THE RIDER (rated R for language and drug use) opened in select theaters May 4, 2018. Find out more on THE RIDER official website.

I screened this film free for review; all opinions are my own.