The Rider ★★★★½

I've been deliberating whether or not to give Chloé Zhao's The Rider the perfect 5 star rating, as I can't yet find any faults in it after sitting on it for a day. I'll leave it at 4.5 for now, give it some more daylight and return to it.

There are countless superlatives I could toss this picture's way, you name it, but the master descriptor I zero in on is honest. The Rider is at bedrock a very simple story of a man struggling to accept a new reality, having gone from a passionate and purpose-driven existence to it being stripped away after a single traumatic head injury. It is not what we usually think of when we consider the Western genre, but this is 100% a Western, and one could argue the purist philosophical example of it. Its concerns are foundational - that of a rider to ride. The lifeblood iconography of the culture, both at its most minimalist and mythic. Personally, I don't understand the appeal of rodeo riding one iota, but this is immaterial as the conflict and intent here is universal. Zhao's stabs at authenticity to ground this narrative are extraordinary: the central family on screen are a real family, possessing little to no acting experience, and many characters in the film - including its central one - are literally living their stories on the screen. Brady Blackburn (Brady Jandreau) actually fell off a horse and sustained this deranging injury. The assimilating effect of this on the viewing experience in hindsight can't be overstated.

Zhao's now patterned docudrama style is here at its most salient, taking us down the quiet path of man coming to grips with his being and the stubbornness, un-acceptance, and finally clarity that serve as markers along his arc. We witness the swelling beauty of the Dakota territory, with its bruising clouds, painterly vistas, and swaying flora. An area of the American heartland normally dismissed as plain and drab. The majesty and enigma of the equine family, both tamed and not, as a symbol that glides between precarious danger and grace. We witness Brady "break" a rebellious horse with a combination of training, instinct and mutual respect. In microcosm, the ethos of the rider. With these visual concerns, The Rider contextualizes Brady's heartbreaking conundrum at a remarkably efficient rate, becoming an understated, somber vehicle for empathy. Darius Marder's recent The Sound of Metal confronts a similar scenario about man coming to grips with a condition antithetical to his existence, and would make a good pairing with The Rider. Chloé Zhao has crafted something close to a masterwork with this 2017 offering, and I hope it goes on to garner the credit it deserves as a special achievement in American independent filmmaking.

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