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CHLOÉ ZHAO: THE RIDER (2017) - NYFF

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BRADY JANDREAU IN THE RIDER

A young cowboy

The Rider, a sad and beautiful little film using real people and dramatizing their lives, shows us the vanishing life of cowboys, especially the bronco buster, rodeo rider kind. The focus is Brady Blackburn (Brady Jandreau), a young cowboy who's had a severe head injury in a rodeo and has to come to terms with how it alters his life. He doesn't want it to, and we see why. Young Chinese-American filmmaker and NYU Film School grad Chloe Zhao and cinematographer Joshua James Richards show as few films can the beauty of the western lands of America, the clear skies, the glowing horizons, the grace of horses, their spirit, and the gentle, patient bond between them and the men who train and ride them.

It's painful and also deeply touching to watch Brady try to do what it's now dangerous for him to do. He was in a coma; he has a metal plate in his head. He has had seizures. There is a syndrome that makes his hands clutch up tight unable to open. He was a champion rodeo rider. If he goes out and does that again, it could be fatal. Even breaking horses is probably too violent, too physical. Yet he tries the latter. See how Zhao shoots Brady taming and eventually mounting a horse that's never been ridden before. This sequence says more about the bond between men and horses than any Western and captures a magical patience and harmony.

The Rider risks becoming becalmed as Brady sits with his differently enabled sister Lily and becomes almost too much to bear when he's playing with severely handicapped young rodeo rider Lane Scott at a rehabilitation center, paralyzed and rendered speechless. In a sense this film isn't exactly going anywhere. It swings back and forth; it's about a situation; about a process, not an event. There are no narrative subtleties or clever twists. The best moments, and they make it all worthwhile, are when Brady hangs out with best buddies Cat, Terry, Tanner and James, or with his father, Wayne Blackburn (Tim Jandreau), who drinks and plays the slots too much and neglects payments on their trailer and chides Brady for his stubbornness. This is where Zhao makes best use of the extraordinary access she has gained with these special people. They live in a world apart, not specifically mentioned, but of the Lakota Sioux in South Dakota's Pine Ridge Indian Reservation (and Brady Lower Brule Sioux heritage) - hence the quiet, the wild, isolated beauty of the land.

Maybe, as some might argue, the details of this world could be better delineated in a straight documentary. But not the emotion. And as Brady Jandreau said in a Q&A, the old Westerns showed cowboys who had no emotions at all. These guys have a lot of emotion, especially Brady. The Rider isn't so much about his way with horses, the adrenalin rush and fulfilment or rodeo riding, but about the emotions he's dealing with, which, under the stoicism and style - and these young cowboys sure are stylish - are painful and intense. Style, and a gentle disposition, are almost all Brady has left without access to the eight minutes of rodeo fame any more. He has virtually no education and no other skill set. But as Guy Lodge notes in his Cannes Variety review, Brady has what it takes to play himself and make it elegantly, touchingly watchable because he's equal to the film's emotional demands and is a "natural, laconic brooder, with the steady stance and gaze of a scragglier Heath Ledger." There's emotion, but the whole game is to steer clear of sentimentality.

Bravado and risk - the bronco-training, a hard wrestle with a pal, promises to the disabled Lane - alternate with hard knocks. Brady has to work in a local supermarket doing this and that, a humiliating scene for a cowboy. His favorite horse must be sold. Brady keeps telling everybody his time off from rodeos is only temporary till he Heals, but the film trajectory is of his gradual unspoken admission that the macho toughing-it-out, the "Say I won’t, and I will" tattoo on Lane Scott's back, must be relinquished. But this is a surrender that's never signed, except to acknowledge, in a final scene, that love and family outrank ego.

The Rider, 104 mins., debuted at Cannes Directors Fortnight, winning the Art Cinema Award; ten other international festivals including Telluride, Toronto, London and New York, screened at the latter 12 Oct. 2017 at Alice Tully Hall, Lincoln Center, for this review, followed by a Q&A with Chloe Zhao, Brady Jandreau and Tim Jandreau moderated by Kent Jones, Director of the Festival. The film will be distributed by Sony Pictures Classics in 2018.

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©Chris Knipp. Blog: http://chrisknipp.blogspot.com/.


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