Movie Review - The Rider (2018)

Earlier this year, Clint Eastwood did something that's rarely done. He tried to tell a nonfiction story about real people, using the real people themselves as makeshift actors or as actors for the first time. This film got a limited theatrical release in April of this year but it premiered at last year's Cannes Film Festival in May 2017, which is technically before Eastwood started shooting The 15:17 to Paris, his film that starred the real people who were also the subjects. Writer-director ChloĆ© Zhao has made only one feature other than this one, but Eastwood who has directed over 30 features could absolutely learn something from what Zhao has done here.

Even if interviews hadn't revealed it, it would still be apparent that Zhao had some kind of friendship with her subject. Some kind of personal touch can be felt in the filmmaking. Zhao feels as if she actually spent time with her subjects and their environment. Eastwood is a major Hollywood celebrity who most likely doesn't have the time or the inclination to immerse or indulge himself in a studio film with a quick turnaround. Zhao probably had years to indulge, given that her previous feature was set in the same place as this film, whereas Eastwood probably had only a couple of months, so I don't fault Eastwood, especially since he isn't the writer or even a screenwriter at all.

Eastwood was simply doing a re-creation or a sheer depiction of events in a person's life. That isn't Zhao's goal or technique. She isn't merely trying to recreate events in her subject's life. She's trying to get at emotional truths about her subject and peek inside his heart and soul. Arguably, Zhao is making an intimate character-study, whereas Eastwood was making an action film, so his treatment of his subjects doesn't have to be the same as Zhao's treatment. The wrinkle is that Eastwood's film in reality wasn't an action flick. It had one action scene but the rest was not, so nailing the character stuff was something Eastwood needed to do but failed. Zhao, however, succeeds greatly.

Brady Jandreau stars as a version of himself. In real-life, Jandreau is a rodeo rider who has to hold on to bucking horses or cattle for sport. Jandreau was horribly injured, suffering a serious head injury, resulting in him being in a coma and his doctors telling him if he tries riding again, he could die. If this sounds familiar, it's the same premise as The Longest Ride (2015), the romantic comedy starring Scott Eastwood, the sexy son of Clint Eastwood, so the Eastwood comparisons come in more ways than one here.

Because Jandreau isn't an actor, what Zhao does that Eastwood's film doesn't is avoid giving Jandreau a lot of dialogue. For someone who isn't an actor, having a lot of dialogue or things to say is probably not a good idea. Unfortunately, this was the case for Spencer Stone, the lead in Eastwood's film. Stone isn't an actor, let alone a good one, but he has so much to say that he can't deliver. Jandreau lucks out and isn't given a lot of dialogue. Zhao just basically follows Jandreau documentary-style and doesn't compel him to act but simply be himself.

It could be said that Eastwood does a similar thing where he follows Stone around documentary-style for large chunks of the film. The problem is that if you're going to follow someone around and observe them, it helps that the person is doing something interesting or engaging. Eastwood followed Stone doing nothing but sightseeing and otherwise being boring. Zhao, however, followed Jandreau training horses and "breaking" wild horses, which is interesting and engaging to watch, even if you're someone like myself who finds animal training problematic.

Despite some horrific things done to horses, there is an empathetic and sympathetic view of horses here. Zhao also doesn't shy away from depicting the danger of rodeo riding, as well as the dilemma of a lot of athletes when one's love of the sport comes at odds with one's physical ability to play it or one's health is preventative. This film takes that issue to its extreme and was reminiscent of Friday Night Lights, the TV series in particular.

Zhao also provides a great sense of place, capturing the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota beautifully. The movie also provides some insight into the Lakota tribe and their ways, but it doesn't hit us over the head with it. It's subtle in its representation of the Native American people in this, along with issues facing them like employment and education problems. It doesn't underline these problems in bold ways but it does in effective ways.

Rated R for language and drug use.
Running Time: 1 hr. and 45 mins.

Available on DVD and VOD.


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