Back in the saddle – ‘The Rider’ leaps flawlessly between reality and fiction

A compelling mix of documentary and drama sees a young rodeo star contemplate an uncertain future in Chinese writer-director Chloé Zhao's superb second film

One of the standout scenes in The Rider, the excellent second feature from writer-director Chloé Zhao, is an extended encounter between its taciturn cowboy hero and an even more taciturn horse.

Brady Blackburn (Brady Jandreau) is a young rodeo star living in a trailer on a South Dakota reservation. A bad head injury has forced him to take time off from the sport he loves. During this period of involuntary retirement, which looks to be more permanent than Blackburn would like to admit, he visits a ranch owned by a friend. The friend has a horse which needs taming and Blackburn takes on the job.

So, stepping into a small corral, Brady sets about placating this snorting, jumpy beast. Over several mesmerising minutes we watch Brady, his manner at once gentle and assertive, calm the horse down, from galloping around the cowboy in small, angry circles to the triumphant moment when it finally consents to have Blackburn mount it.

The process, observed by Zhao’s camera through a gap in the fence nearby, is untouched by any sense of fakery, and it should come as no surprise that Brady is himself a genuine rodeo star with a lifetime of experience of working with horses.

The Rider is a remarkable alchemy of documentary and fiction. Zhao’s superb cast draw on their real-life experience, playing, to varying degrees, versions of themselves (including his father and young sister, a teenager with learning difficulties). Working with a small crew, the young Chinese-born director has harnessed this real-life material into a poetic, gorgeously realised parable of loss and recovery against a backdrop of the American midwest at its most majestic.

For Brady, the problem is one of letting go, not just of physical things but of his rodeo dreams

When we first encounter Jandreau (the non-actor has a born movie star’s sharp intensity) he’s unpicking the stitches of a head wound from a recent fall at a rodeo performance. Zhao focuses on the bloodied scar in an icky close-up. It closes over during the course of the film, but Brady is left struggling with other more lasting consequences of this injury.

The accident has left him suffering from seizures. At certain moments his hand clamps tight and he has to force his fingers apart to release whatever he’s holding at the time – invariably the reins to a horse. For Brady, the problem is one of letting go, not just of physical things but of his rodeo dreams.

A stark lesson in the dangers Blackburn faces from ignoring his doctor’s advice to stop riding is provided by his regular visits to his friend Lane. This young man is played by Lane Scott, himself Jandreu’s real-life friend. He is severely disabled from an accident he suffered when he was a bull rider.

The two are able to joke together, but it’s desperately sad too, especially when we compare Scott’s frail, paralysed condition today. He communicates to Blackburn only through hand signs, in contrast to the robustly physical young cowboy we see glimpsed in phone footage of old rodeo shows. He tries not to show it, but mixed in with Blackburn’s longing to return to rodeo riding is the fear that a similar fate could befall him.

Blackburn’s world is a ruggedly masculine one. The default response to any expression of vulnerability is to “cowboy up”, and yet what strikes you about Zhao’s film is its delicacy and tenderness. This is a film of subtle, unspoken grace notes, an intimate and deeply moving portrait of both Blackburn and the community of which he is part. It is an understated gem of a film, and marks Zhao as a major talent.

The Rider is in cinemas from September 14