What do we do when one version of us dies? When we can no longer be the person we used to be? Where do we find meaning when our purpose has been taken from us?
The Rider tells the story of Brady Blackburn, a rodeo rider and horse trainer who’s suffered a serious head injury and can no longer ride. We walk with Brady as he struggles against his new life. All he’s known is riding. He waits and he waits to heal enough that he can ride again. But he knows, and we know, that it may never happen. And then what? And then who is he?
Brady Blackburn is played by Brady Jandreau, himself a rodeo rider and horse trainer who’s suffered a serious head injury. Brady’s sister is played by his sister, their father is played by their father. This could have turned out to be an unfortunate case of stunt-casting by director Chloe Zhao, but instead it’s a move that adds deep emotional layers. The reality behind what we see has a rare weight and resonance—these people know this life, they know these feelings. I’m not someone who has much interest in horses or rodeos, but watching Brady work with an unruly horse, showing it how to be a horse someone can ride, I got actual chills in my body. My heart broke a little bit as Brady talked to his best friend who has had an even more life-altering injury. This is real. None of this can be faked.
Chloe Zhao’s camera is never in a hurry, capturing the angle of the sun just so, the glory of the South Dakota Badlands surrounding Brady even as he’s at war inside. It may seem like he’s lost his purpose, but still: look how beautiful it all is.
Like the 2016 film Moonlight, The Rider uses a very particular set of circumstances to tell a universal story. It’s the search for ourselves, the search for who we are. And, also like Moonlight, The Rider could very well end up being the best movie of the year.