The Rider is one of the best sports movies of the past 10-years and it's all about a bull rider. A sport that is limited to select sections of the world, will reveal to audiences exactly what a sport can mean to someone. In Chloe Zhao's The Rider, the director mixes the complex determination that a competitor wrestles with, while fighting to survive living in the heartland of America. This is a movie that beautifully captures a slice of humanity. Brady Blackburn (Brady Jandreau), is a young-man that suffered a terrible head injury after being bucked from a bull. His head cracked open and put him in a coma for weeks. Returning from an injury of that nature is near impossible, but for our hero, riding bulls is all he's got. He lives in a broken down home, with an alcoholic father, and his mentally disabled sister. This family carries the weight of hopelessness ever since their mother recently passed away, leaving them without their rock. And now, Brady must make a decision that could define his existence: does he get back on the bull to ride again? Or does he fade into a cold existence of obscurity? For these reasons and more, The Rider is beautiful, romantic, at times tragic film, set on the open range, in the rolling hills of South Dakota.   

The Rider

The script, also written by Zhao, is dealing with a handful of themes. The biggest among them is masculinity. Brady is living in a world where weakness is not an option. He's found comfort in the companionship of his fellow riders and competitions of bull riding. His only outlet for loosening up or showing his softer side, was the love he received from his mother. Now that she's gone, he must help take care of his sister, attempt to keep his dad sober, and keep what remains of his passion. But if one cannot act on their passion then what is left? It's evident in the first scene of The Rider, where Brady wakes up and removes his own staples from his head, that he won't be stopped. He can't stand being laid up anymore, and believes he must be tough. Riding is his life and without it he's not a man. Completely useless in the world.

What I found extraordinary about The Rider is director Zhao's mixture of cinematic styles and a variety of gorgeous images from cinematographer Joshua James Richards. Early on, there's a brief montage of of bull riders brutally injuring themselves, setting the tone for the audience to know how dangerous it is. There are also crisp, golden lit shots, that capture realistic and dreamlike moments of Brady's cowboy life. With the use of long overhead views, we see a romantic side to what it means to be a rider, basking in open fields, interacting with beautiful horses, or bonding over beers with friends around a campfire. Visually, The Rider is a combination of both a documentary and a Terence Malick film, but tells a story comparable to the likes of Darren Aronofsky's The Wrestler. The hero hopes for one more last ride.

On a surface level I related to The Rider in many ways. I too lived life believing that all I had was sports and without it, I would be useless. You give your life to the dream and sacrifice everything you have. It doesn’t help to be living in a quiet town, with little to no prospects outside of bull riding, and surrounded by vast miles of open land. Brady wants to ride again, he very well could die, but without it he feels dead already. His next attempt to ride leads to him experiencing mini-strokes, where his hand clenches so tight to the rope, he can't even open it back up. Is it worth it? He even visits a friend who lives in an assisted rehab facility. Unable to walk from the damage the sport did to him. This is not where Brady wants to end up. His journey is a beautiful mixture of sadness, in a setting that looks like heaven.

What becomes of Brady's life, well, I'll leave that detail for you to discover, but I hope you seek a movie like this out. The Rider is a special film. It captures so much of what growing up is and how letting go of the things we love becomes difficult, especially when the alternative is something we are trying to escape. We feel empathy watching a movie like The Rider. It captures all of the emotions of life. The Rider is a truly fantastic film. That's no bull.


Written by: Leo Brady