Monday, October 09, 2017

NYFF ’17: The Rider

Thanks to the spectacular success of Roger Goodell’s double-secret plan, the media has been completely distracted from the NFL’s concussion problem. In the long run, players would be better served by stricter safety regulations than the league’s political posturing. At least, there is a considerable upside to being a pro football player. Professional rodeo riders will never see that kind of compensation, but they run similar head trauma risks. Brady Blackburn is a case in point. He always aspired to be the best bronco rider on the circuit, but just as he won that kind of recognition, he suffered a life-altering injury. Blackburn will slowly come to terms with his new reality in Chloé Zhao’s The Rider (clip here), which screens as a Main Slate selection of the 55th New York Film Festival.

Blackburn is played by real life horse-trainer and former bronco-rider Brady Jandreau, as is his little sister and father Tim (whose name changed to Wayne, perhaps to establish more distance between the elder Jandreau and his character’s drinking and compulsive gambling). Brady Blackburn/Jandreau self-describes as an “Indian cowboy:” Lower Brule Sioux by heritage and a cowboy by vocation, which is about as American as it gets. South Dakota is one of the least populous states, but within his circles, Blackburn’s small pond fame was on the rise. Then he had what doctors insist must be a career-ending injury.

We see the scars vividly close-up when Blackburn removes his bandages in the opening scene, but we can’t see the steel plate he now carries inside his head. Resigning from the cowboy life seems like the only responsible thing for him to do. However, his family’s debt adds additional uncertainty to his situation. More fundamentally, he just seems to be born to work with horses, as when we watch him tame one beautiful but fiery specimen. Yet, even that more limited involvement carries great risks.

Blackburn/Jandreau’s personal circumstances are especially trying, but we clearly get the sense Zhao is documenting a more broadly endangered way of life. It somewhat shares a kinship with the doc Sweetgrass, but Rider is exponentially more emotionally gripping. Zhao portrays her subject and his friends and family with great sensitivity and dignity. Rider is her second feature set in and around the Pine Ridge Reservation, so clearly, she had an affinity for the locals and they developed a trust in her, which is was indeed justified.

The Rider is a very nice film that deserves its accolades (most definitely including Joshua James Richards’ sweeping cinematography), but Zhao’s film that still haunts us is the nine-minute Daughters, a short narrative about a young Chinese girl, whose parents suddenly decide they have one daughter too many now that they finally have their much-desired baby boy. Truthfully speaking, Daughters was one of the first films that convinced us covering shorts was an important thing to do. Hopefully, it will get more attention when Sony Classics releases The Rider in theaters. Recommended for those who appreciate aesthetically sophisticated western cinema and deeply personal drama, The Rider screens this Thursday (12/12), Saturday (10/14), and Sunday (10/15) as part of this year’s NYFF.