Review of The Rider (2017)
By Taylor Thornburg
In her film The Rider, Chloe Zhao draws attention to the frequently neglected personalities of the American Midwest, their sumptuous environments, the diverse experiences of diverse human bodies, and into the secret places where we keep our biggest dreams and greatest fears. The film explores the life of the young rodeo star named Brady Blackburn (portrayed by Brady Jandreau) during the months that follow a debilitating head injury earned by way of practicing his craft. Brady’s head injury introduces one of the main sources of conflict in The Rider, namely the conflict between body and will, a genuine conflict in-and-of itself and also a symbol for the taught relationship between the material and the ideal evident in every scene in The Rider as well as the lives of its audience.
Immediately, Brady’s head injury changes his lived experience in a way that illuminates his family, friends, and community and by extension the remarkable cast of The Rider. Zhao cast this film almost entirely with local non-actors, betting their authentic experiences and sincerity against the polished performances of professional actors imitating the lives of the people portrayed as such. Zhao’s gamble pays off in big ways. Everyone that graces the screen in The Rider provides a memorable performance.
Zhao wastes no time condensing the complicated consequences that an injury like Brady’s has on his friends and family. Her characters mark it as another misfortune in a long line of them unique in that it acts like a cipher that makes their continuums of tragedy intelligible: Brady’s mother passing away from cancer before the events portrayed in the film, another rider severely handicapped after a similar accident, rampant poverty, and more. Despite the hardship that her characters endure and the diverse ways in which her characters articulate it, Zhao saturates them in dignity and confidence. She endlessly affirms that despite medical, economic, or social differences and the ways in which socially constructed hierarchies advantage some differences and disadvantage others, the people in Brady’s community and the Midwest more broadly belong when and where they are.
Zhao depicts the Midwest as a spectacular and dazzling place full of as much character as the people that navigate its dreamy terrain in The Rider. Golden fields contrast against clear blue skies at mid-day. Angry purple clouds descend on vibrant red rocks at sun down. What many people may write off as “fly-over country,” Zhao makes a spectacle out of. Zhao’s spectacle serves two main functions: it demands that people pay attention to lives of others in places where they may think that the lives of others matter very little, and it reminds people that may not be from the Midwest in particular of the troubled history of the frontier. On the one hand, Zhao’s use of set and locations and the brilliant cinematography that she uses to capture them set up a stage for her characters to interact on that amplifies their performances and materializes their inner-lives in the rugged cliff faces, wind-swept fields, and moody skies. The ways in which she uses her landscapes to externalize the inner pleasures and sorrows of her characters makes the experiences of the characters larger than life and obscures the distinction between individual, society, and place that many people often take for granted.
Zhao also recognizes this place, the Midwest, the frontier as a home of hundreds of sorrows. She does not explicitly address the uprooted and murdered indigenous populations and colonialism that led white settlers to this place long ago, but she makes that history evident in the sheer neglect that the characters still on the frontier experience: little to no economic security, vulnerable bodies that break in ways that cannot be mended, and isolation from the world outside of what they occupy. While Zhao’s depiction of the Midwest denounces the vision of the frontier as white colonial settlers once saw it, she does not address systematic ways in which to deconstruct the vision and dream new dreams. However, that broad of a goal does not necessarily fall in the purview of her film. Her film draws its power from universal struggles that the characters participate in to resolve the tension of idea and material as set against the backdrop of a sorrowful Midwest.
Brady’s recovery process demonstrates the primary instance of idea and material in tension in The Rider. The idea in this instance is Brady’s notion of himself and his notion of the rodeo rider. Zhao symbolizes Brady’s ideas through television, phone, and computer screens on which Brady, his family, and friends watch rodeo riders actively participating in competitions. These screens pepper the film like information-age thought bubbles showing the ways in which Brady imagines himself as being. The material in this instance is Brady’s body. Despite his idea of himself as a rodeo rider, his attending physician advises him, “no more rodeos.” After Brady’s head injury, his body cannot tolerate the strain that such activity puts him through.
Brady’s struggle to reconstruct his life around the reality of his body accomplishes a lot. It draws attention to the fact that the United States does not facilitate a culture friendly to diverse bodies that have diverse experiences. It draws attention to the arbitrary measurements of achievement and success utilized in the United States. However, most broadly, Brady’s challenges in The Rider symbolize the inanity of an ideology that preaches, “follow your bliss,” to individuals in a society that disadvantages all but a few.
Capitalist societies like the United States make, “bliss” a difficult state to encounter. In capitalist societies, wealth and resources centralize in the hands of a few, these few wield power and influence based on their resources to their advantage and to the disadvantage of others. These others are poor to middle class, black or brown, elderly, femme, differently abled, have diverse sexualities, diverse gender identities, and more. Capitalist societies preach an ideal society in which the key to happiness is to, “follow your bliss,” but the material reality is that an elite class of people in control of centralized resources makes that goal difficult if not impossible to achieve. Like Brady Blackburn, the average person in the United States can try to get on their horse, but their material reality will dramatically undercut their ideal aspirations. This damning commentary on the ways in which people in the United States and other capitalist societies conduct themselves should put everyone to shame.
The common message of The Rider ties all of its desperate elements together, and this message is that everyone should be able to pursue their bliss when one’s bliss is what is essential for their identity because that moment of personal fulfillment is the meaning of life. The arbitrary inhibitions that prevent it should be destroyed. The dreadful history that suppresses it should be corrected. The people whose stories are authentic should be visible. Like Brady’s struggle to figure out the meaning of his life after his debilitating head injury, the task is Herculean for all individuals that undertake it as individuals. Heeding the journey depicted in Chloe Zhao’s The Rider, each individual can shoulder a little bit of the change if they can trust their community to bear their fair share of the burden. The task may be a challenge, but the rewards are clear. Failure to accept means failure to achieve the alchemy depicted in the gorgeous closing scenes of the film: misery turning to freedom flying across golden fields of fresh smelling prairie grass under a warm uninhibited sun, wind roaring, bliss on the horizon.