In Tuesday’s dispatch to the Village Voice from the Cannes Film Festival, Bilge Ebiri wrote about one of the best films he’d seen so far, The Rider, “directed by Chloé Zhao (whom I interviewed). It follows a young rodeo cowboy of Sioux descent who’s been sidelined by a grave injury, the result of a ghastly fall off a horse. Told that he might die if he ever attempts to ride again, Brady (played by real-life rodeo star Brady Jandreau, whose own life and career-ending injury inspired the film) wrestles with the idea of a future devoid of the one activity that gives him meaning. . . . Working with a cast of non-professionals who play themselves—this includes Brady’s autistic sister, and his paraplegic best friend and fellow rodeo casualty Lane Scott—and are often re-enacting events from their own lives, Zhao achieves a lovely balance between unflinching realism and the hauntingly lyrical.”
The Los Angeles Times’ Justin Chang sees “the same assured command of documentary and narrative techniques she showed in her 2015 debut, Songs My Brothers Taught Me . . . As it follows Brady down his hard road to recovery, studying him as he literally gets back on his horse and weighs his dreams against his survival, The Rider becomes both a classically absorbing western and a wounding close-up of masculinity in crisis.”
Songs is a “poignant study of Lakota Sioux siblings in South Dakota’s Pine Ridge Indian Reservation” and “introduced audiences to the Chinese-American filmmaker’s style of reality-infused storytelling, and also established her clear affinity for the region,” writes Variety’s Guy Lodge. “The Rider also takes Pine Ridge as its setting, with cinematographer Joshua James Richards (fresh from his atmospheric exploration of very different rural turf in the Yorkshire-set God’s Own Country) lending a crepuscular glow to its dry, tawny vistas.”
“The Rider feels like an expanded, loosened and more impressionistic version of something very much more overtly crafted by, say, Cormac McCarthy, Larry McMurtry, or Annie Proulx,” suggests the Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw.
“Zhao’s combination of the visual palette of Terrence Malick, the social backbone of Kelly Reichardt, and the spontaneity of John Cassavetes creates cinema verité in the American plains,” offers Ed Frankl at the Film Stage.
At ScreenAnarchy, Shelagh Rowan-Legg finds the film to be “neither romantic nor sentimental; it is gentle to its characters, letting them breathe through the story and space.”
“The film’s elegiac style and admiration for stoic reserve, common traits in American cinema about the West in earlier days, could not be more out of step with the tenor and sensibilities of the moment, and more’s the pity,” finds the Hollywood Reporter’s Todd McCarthy. “But Zhao . . . has resurrected these venerable approaches with a natural, unaffected confidence that is bracing.”
“A word must go to Paul Knox and Ben Gieschen’s astute and effective sound design, which works in natural harmony with Nathan Halpern’s moving but restrained score,” adds Screen’s Fionnuala Halligan.
Sony Pictures Classics has picked up rights for “North America and other territories,” reports Ramin Setoodah for Variety.
Update, 5/27: Zhao’s “realistic, collaborative style allows her camera to move freely around the characters and create an incredibly absorbing sense of place with breathtaking images, whether in the harsh light of the midday sun, the soft haze of the morning or the warm tones of the magic hour,” writes Elena Lazic for Little White Lies. “Heavy-hearted cowboys, wild horses and broken dreams: The Rider is a great film about what it means to be a man.”
Update, 5/30: For Vulture’s Emily Yoshida, “what’s so subtly special about The Rider” is “the way it takes what easily could have been reportage and turns it into modern American myth. Brady and his friends live in a milieu both quintessentially American and completely obscure to most 21st-century Americans. And yet, their story feels universal to any person—or country, for that matter—that has ever had to accept a fundamental change or loss or blow to their sense of self.”
Update, 5/31: “Joshua James Richards’s cinematography—a collision of the intimacy of social realist cinema and the legendary golden hour restrictions made famous by Néstor Almendros with Days of Heaven—is nothing less than breathtaking,” writes Bradley Warren at the Playlist. “Richards may borrow the technique of the Terrence Malick film but makes it all his own with the shift in landscape and thematic resonance.”