You know that big award ceremony that happens in Hollywood every year in the last weekend of award season? No not the Oscars. I’m talking about the Independent Spirit Awards. If you’re not familiar it’s an award show that’s given out every year the Saturday before the Oscars (when all the celebrities are in town) since the mid-80s which were meant to be something of an anti-Oscars where the makers of plucky independent films got together in a large circus tent while wearing casual clothing. It’s been a bit redundant now given that their definition of “independent” is pretty broad and the real Academy is more receptive to “independent” films than ever and at this point the overlap between the two shows is pretty heavy. In fact it’s been something like ten years since the winner of the Spirit award wasn’t also an Oscar nominee and even longer since it was won by something that wasn’t pretty heavily on the Oscar radar. Still, there does seem to be at least some sort of voting bloc at Film Independent that is, for better or worse, interested in highlighting less prominent indie films to the point where they’ve occasionally nominated movies the year before they’ve even come out in general release. That happened about ten years ago when they gave two nominations to Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker months before anyone who hadn’t been to a film festival had ever heard of it. A similar thing happened last year as well when they gave a “Best Feature” nomination to a movie that had been well off my radar called The Rider despite the film’s general release not occurring until almost half a year later.
The Rider is set in modern rural South Dakota and focuses on a guy named Brady Blackburn (Brady Jandreau) who has just suffered a major injury while performing in a rodeo. Blackburn appears to be in his twenties and lives in a trailer with his father Wayne (Tim Jandreau) who appears to be a heavy drinker and gambler and his fifteen year old sister Lilly (Lilly Jandreau) who seems to have some sort of mental disability. As the film begins Blackburn has a large gash across the side of his head under which a metal plate has been attached and as a result of this brain injury he occasionally loses control of one of his hands. He’s been told that another rodeo injury could kill him and that he needs to avoid riding and rest in order to heal. Frustrated, Blackburn tries to find a way to make a living outside of his one true skill and to find a way to leave behind his passion for horse riding and the thrill of rodeo performance.
The obvious reference point for this is almost certainly Darren Aronofsky’s 2008 film The Wrestler, which also focused on the plight of a guy in a disreputable “sport” who’s told that he’s no longer physically fit participate in said sport and has trouble accepting that he needs to give it up. Both films focus on their protagonist’s shame at their current state and have sub-plots where they are miserable while trying to get menial day jobs where people recognize them from their previous more glamourous life. They even have similar titles. Of course there are differences; Randy “The Ram” Robinson was depicted as someone who had been very famous in his past life and was brought down both by age and by years of wear and tear while Brady Blackburn is a guy who only appears to have had some slight regional success before having his career cut short by a sudden injury. Now, being similar to another movie is not a deal breaker by any means and there are a number of stylistic differences that make this different in both tone and message than Aronofsky’s film.
Almost all of the characters in The Rider are played by non-actors and all the members of Blackburn’s family appear to be played by actual relatives of Brady Jandreau but the film is scripted and technically a work of fiction even if it does sort of mirror the lives of the people acting in it. I’m not the biggest believer the use of non-actors in movies. Every once in a while it works beautifully in something like The Florida Project but for every one of those there are a dozen indie movies made by Rossellini-wannabes that just sort of feel cheap. I would say this one felt like a bit of a mix of the two. Brady Jandreau was pretty impressive in the film, especially in the scenes where he’s not speaking and in the scenes where he’s doing his horse training work, which seemed pretty authentic. I also thought Lilly Jandreau added an interesting presence to the film and felt very real for obvious reasons and it’s probably fair to say that the approach added a number of interesting faces to the movie. However, the downside of this approach is that there are moments where the amateur nature of the performers comes through, especially in the dialogue scenes which occasionally results in some rather questionable line-readings.
Rather than harken back to the visual style of Hollywood westerns Chloé Zhao’s visual approach is minimalist and has a very straightforward digital look that emphasizes its realism. A lot of people have been interpreting the film as a statement about “toxic masculinity” because it’s about the culture that demands that this guy keep doing something dangerous to prove his manhood, and there is a little of that in there but I’m not so sure that people would be seeing all of that had the movie not been directed by a woman. For one thing, Brady Blackburn doesn’t strike me as a terribly agro individual so much as this thoughtful horse whisperer type and at times the character’s stubbornness clashes a bit with the more thoughtful take that Jandreau has on the character. Instead, to me this feels like a sort of dark reversal on the kind of “chase your dreams and you can do anything” philosophy that gets espoused by movies like La La Land. Society loves telling stories about people who overcome injuries and beat people’s expectations but it’s not so interested in telling the stories of people who try to do that and only end up digging themselves deeper into holes. That’s worth exploring to be sure, but I’ve seen it explored more excitingly elsewhere (did I mention that this resembled The Wrestler?) and the tour through rural America is only going to do so much for me. There is some skill here though and I can imagine Zhao’s approach working better as it evolves and finds other more original subjects.
**1/2 out of Five