One of the more baffling things about masculinity is the way it punishes those who suffer the consequences of its risks nearly as much as it punishes those who don’t take those risks to begin with. (It’s almost as though it were an untenable and outmoded ethos.) In Chloé Zhao’s elegiac The Rider, young Brady — played by real-life rodeo star Brady Jandreau, whose story the film lightly fictionalizes — is a cowboy of Sioux descent who was recently thrown on his head by a bronco. (An opening scene in which Brady removes the staples from the resulting wound confirms the ouchiness of this.)
Forced to work in a grocery store — forever a cinematic symbol of emasculation — Brady struggles with how to move on with his life when he can’t do the one thing that defined him as a man. The necessarily naturalistic performances by the non-actors playing versions of themselves, including Brady’s father Tim and his mildly neurodivergent sister Lilly, suggests the documentary this film might have been in another timeline. Zhao manages to get performances out of her nonprofessional cast that feel authentic rather than awkward, and while Brady gazes into the distance at twilight no less than a Terence Malick lead, Zhao’s film is thankfully not Malickian. Instead, The Rider actually means something.
Opens Friday at the Embarcadero Center Cinema.