The Rider runs up against the limitations of its technique

Chloé Zhao’s hybrid film in which non-actors play versions of themselves stumbles in the final section

THE RIDER (Chloé Zhao). 103 minutes. Opens Friday (April 27). See listing. Rating: NNN

Maybe it’s a good thing that Chloé Zhao’s The Rider is opening here just as Hot Docs gets fully under way. In an era of hybrid filmmaking, where documentaries grow more experimental and incorporate elements of dramatic features, what Zhao does with narrative cinema seems like a form of response: challenged by reality, her fictions push back.

To make her movies, Zhao casts non-actors as versions of themselves in fictionalized stories derived from their own experiences. It worked very well in her previous feature Songs My Brothers Taught Me, which Zhao shot at the Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota with a cast of talented, affecting young people.

But with The Rider, Zhao runs up against the limitations of the technique.

The Rider casts Brady Jandreau more or less as himself, a young horseman trying to resume his old life after suffering a devastating head injury. Like Songs, the film examines masculinity and self-image in the modern West – perhaps even more so, since Brady’s entire concept of himself is rooted in the work he can no longer do.

If Brady can’t be his old self and can’t conceive of any other way of life, what happens next? Zhao situates her subject’s slow-motion crisis in a fully lived-in world, with a dramatic arc that’s clear and engaging, if a little on the obvious side. It’s very clear from Brady’s first conversation with a medical professional how things are going to play out.

But as the movie goes on, Zhao’s decision to work with non-professionals seems more and more limiting. The Jandreau family, and several other cast members, are entirely convincing as rodeo cowboys and horse trainers, but they struggle with their dialogue and the film’s larger metaphor. 

And that’s a problem The Rider never really resolves. By the final movement, I felt Zhao’s hybrid approach edging past illumination and into an uncomfortable space where it starts to feel as though people are being encouraged to re-enact their worst moments for a catharsis the film doesn’t really earn.

I’m clearly in the minority here. Critics rhapsodized over these very same scenes at Cannes, TIFF and Sundance. But I wonder how they’ll play to a commercial audience.

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