Friday, January 11, 2019

The Rider

I absolutely should have seen this last April rather than getting lucky that it popped up on the Brattle's best-of-2018 series as half of a double feature with Leave No Trace, another really fantastic movie directed by a woman that takes place well outside of the city and focuses on people having a hard time reintegrating with the world. It's a pretty terrific double feature, even if I bailed on the second half because I was pretty sleepy (had one of those nights where I look up, see it's 2am and wonder if I was still awake or if I had briefly slept, and then sucked down extra caffeine at work).

I'm kind of fascinated by where everyone goes next. ChloƩ Zhao has signed a deal with Marvel to make The Eternals, and even as a guy who likes Marvel and Jack Kirby and all, I couldn't name an Eternal to save my life; I don't know whether that gives her a blank canvas or sets her up for an Inhumans-style mess. Take that chance to do something huge, though. More interesting, potentially, is Brady Jandreau; it's got to be weird to try and drop back into your life after making a movie about how you can't drop right back into your life, and there's hints of real talent here. I suspect if studios were still making Westerns, he'd become a familiar character actor (his injuries seem to leave stunts out of the question), but they're not.

That we ask that sort of highlights what an interesting situation Zhao's decision to use Jandreau and his family to make a narrative of their story is. In most features, we're free to imagine what comes next, and the ambiguity is by design; documentaries are often definitive in some way or other. This has all the open-endedness plus the idea that the observation distorts the outcome which is kind of fascinating.

The Rider

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 9 January 2018 in the Brattle Theatre [(Some of} The Best of 2018, DCP]

Show someone The Rider without any background, and they'll probably come away impressed; it's a fine independent film that tells its story with understated respect for its characters and creates a few striking images. Add that context, and it starts to feel a bit like a documentary. It's not, of course, but filmmaker ChloƩ Zhao is able to find a middle ground between what is real and what is crafted that makes both elements more effective and the film more compelling.

It gives the audience Brady Blackburn (Brady Jandreau), a gifted South Dakota horse trainer in his twenties who is also a star on the local rodeo circuit - at least until he was thrown from a bucking bronco which stepped on his head, leaving him with not just a nasty gash on his head and post-concussion symptoms including dizziness and vomiting, but mini-seizures that leave him unable to unclench a fist. Beyond the questions of his health, this leaves him adrift - all his friends are involved with the rodeo, and raising and training horses has long been the family business. Who is he if he's not a cowboy?

Change the last names, and character Brady Blackburn's story is not far from that of Brady Jandeau; that scar on his head is real and his real-life situation inspired Zhao (who had met him while working on another project) to make this film. His family plays fictionalized version of themselves as well, and knowing this can make a viewer wonder about certain scenes in different ways - is the resentment one sees between father and son created to make the film more dramatic, or not, and what does it mean that they'd be willing to re-enact it and let Zhao record it for posterity? Is that different than giving a documentary filmmaker full access? There are a number of places where a viewer can't help but wonder about the blurred line between fiction and reality here.

Full review at EFC.

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