HIGHWAY MAN FILMS

★★★★☆

The opening scene of “The Rider” sets the tone for the entire movie: Viewers see horse trainer and rodeo star Brady Blackburn’s stapled skull under harsh lighting, matching the scene’s gruesome mood. Blackburn is played by Brady Jandreau, who serves as the inspiration for the film’s true story. Directed by Chloé Zhao, the film explores themes of identity and recovery from trauma, starring an untrained lead with a personal investment in the story.

Despite doctors’ warnings to quit riding after he falls off a horse and suffers a traumatic brain injury, Blackburn struggles to let go of his passion for rodeo. Viewers learn a central symptom of Blackburn’s injury is regular complex seizures, which cause his hand to “lock”; the symptom serves as a tactful metaphor for Blackburn’s reluctance to let go of his grip on his horseback riding dreams.

Blackburn’s story is one of perseverance and bravery: He is determined to make a name for himself. Blackburn clearly possesses not only the skills — he is the only one capable of training a number of unruly horses — but also the passion needed to succeed at this high level. Tragically, however, Blackburn is forced to follow a new path by getting an entry-level job at a grocery store — the only job he could qualify for without a high school degree.

Zhao juxtaposes the former rodeo star’s old life with his new one when a young rodeo fan approaches a shelf-stocking Blackburn for a photo. The stark comparison between past and present is clearest in that moment. Despite his difficult circumstances, Blackburn’s spirit is never fully put out. While others would retreat and mope, he does not give up, and instead remains confident and determined.

“The Rider” focuses on the larger theme of identity: Blackburn tells his sister that God created each person with a specific purpose. His purpose was to ride. When horseback riding is no longer an option for him, the hero feels stuck in a whirlwind, unsure of what to do. The psychological effects of this uncertainty are profound, as Blackburn compares himself to an injured horse that gets put down.

Perhaps most impressive about the film is its cast. Jandreau, the star of the film, had no previous acting experience. Yet, his raw emotion and authenticity shine through in his character. Jandreau undoubtedly draws on his own struggles in his performance, as the actor suffered a similar real-life accident.

The dynamics between the actors are also unparalleled: Tim Jandreau, Brady Jandreau’s father, plays Blackburn’s father in the film, and his sister Lilly Jandreau plays his autistic sister.

Lane Scott, another untrained actor, plays Blackburn’s best friend and fellow rodeo star who suffered an even more serious injury than the main character. The relationship between the two is touching, with each encouraging the other despite an unspoken knowledge that, because of their injuries, their lives would not be the same.

The obviously close real-life relationships translate onto the screen perfectly in a way that could not have been replicated had Zhao chosen unrelated, trained actors. The composition of the film adds to its authenticity; as a result, the film never feels manipulative or exploitative. The incredible sense of realness draws viewers in and keeps them captivated for the full 105 minute run time. “The Rider” resonates with its audience not through dramatic scripted conflicts, but through raw emotion. Blackburn is a man of few words, but the words he does say are never wasted.

Those who have been knocked off their path or made to adapt after an unexpected change can relate to Blackburn, giving the film a wide-reaching appeal. “The Rider” is not simply a story of a horseback rider: It is a story of hope and resilience in the face of struggle.

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