When every rodeo might be your last in the sad­dle

Sun Sentinel Broward Edition - Showtime - Broward - - MOVIES - By Michael Phillips

Sub­tle, el­e­men­tal and pow­er­fully beau­ti­ful, writer-di­rec­tor Chloe Zhao’s “The Rider” is the West­ern of the new cen­tury, and the most en­velop­ing film ex­pe­ri­ence I’ve had this year.

Even a hack di­rec­tor could make some­thing of the south­west­ern South Dakota land­scapes near Wounded Knee, lined by the Bad­lands, and fore­grounded by the peo­ple who live, work, ride and risk their lives there. But with this, the sec­ond fea­ture writ­ten and di­rected by Bei­jing-born and Amer­i­can-ed­u­cated Zhao, we have am­ple ev­i­dence of a film­maker whose sto­ry­telling in­stincts com­bine the prose of doc­u­men­tary with the po­etry of a cin­e­matic nat­u­ral.

The same can be said of the main char­ac­ter as por­trayed, close to the bone and to his own ex­pe­ri­ence, by a real-life Lakota cow­boy named Brady Jan­dreau. Now 22, he is ev­ery­thing “The Rider” needs. He’s an au­then­tic pres­ence, with trace el­e­ments of Chris­tian Bale and Heath Ledger around the eyes, ut­terly at home in every shot, whether it’s in the con­fines of a trailer or a hos­pi­tal bed, in tight closeup, or out­side un­der the sky, with the an­i­mals with whom he’s al­most su­per­nat­u­rally in sync.

A critic risks mythol­o­giz­ing a new­comer or a film with such de­scrip­tions. Hap­pily, Zhao has a sharp sense of when, and how, to hit the brakes on the wrong, corny kind of rugged in­di­vid­u­al­ism.

We first see Brady Black­burn, Jan­dreau’s lightly fic­tion­al­ized ver­sion of him­self, in bed, wak­ing with a start af­ter dream­ing of horses. A be­hind-the­back trav­el­ing shot, af­ter MPAA rat­ing: R (for lan­guage and drug use) Run­ning time: 1:44 Opens: Fri­day he gets up, re­veals a head bandage. We see a hor­ri­fy­ing row of sta­ples once he re­moves the bandage; the sta­ples are hold­ing a deep gash in his skull to­gether.

He has suf­fered a se­vere head in­jury get­ting thrown off a bronco at a rodeo. His re­cov­ery is an un­cer­tain ques­tion mark. His rope hand is crip­pled. With his rodeo bud­dies, early in the pic­ture, Brady sits around a camp­fire sur­rounded by dark­ness. “By NFL stan­dards,” one says, re­fer­ring to his “10-plus con­cus­sions … I should be dead.”

Brady lives with his fa­ther, a tac­i­turn denizen of bars and casino poker stools, and his 15-year-old sis­ter, a vi­brant spirit liv­ing with Asperger’s syn­drome. They’re played by Jan­dreau’s real-life fa­ther and sis­ter; Brady’s friends are played by his real friends. “The Rider” be­longs in the Bad­lands be­tween fic­tion and non­fic­tion, and Zhao knows her way around. The movie seems to be hap­pen­ing nat­u­rally, even when the in­di­vid­ual shots com­posed so ef­fort­lessly by Zhao and her cin­e­mato- gra­pher Joshua James Richards cast a for­lorn spell.

When “The Rider” takes the time to show Brady in his el­e­ment, train­ing wild horses, the movie cap­tures bril­liantly just how hard it’ll be for him to leave the horses be­hind. Coaching his friend, us­ing a makeshift me­chan­i­cal con­trap­tion, Brady mut­ters: “Ride it like it’s gonna be the last horse you’ll ever get on.” The line comes and goes be­fore we know it, yet it’s a state­ment of char­ac­ter that feels heart­break­ingly true.

Brady’s life’s work may kill him; a life with­out it may kill him more slowly. Zhao got to know the Lakota Sioux and the In­dian cow­boys on her pre­vi­ous fea­ture, “Songs My Broth­ers Taught Me.” She met Jan­dreau, a mem­ber of the Lower Brule Sioux Tribe, in 2015. She re­al­ized this man, this face, this life de­serves a film. And her film de­serves your time and at­ten­tion, not be­cause it’s “wor­thy,” not even be­cause it takes you to a strik­ing part of Amer­ica and Amer­i­can myth you may not know, but be­cause it’s just plain ex­cel­lent. Michael Phillips is a Tri­bune critic.


Brady Jan­dreau plays a cow­boy try­ing to cope with a rodeo in­jury in “The Rider,” from film­maker Chloe Zhao.

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