Sundance 2018 resulted in a number of highly anticipated films. We’re starting to see the festival’s line-up of features hit theaters. This week, the character drama The Rider hit cinemas around the country. Should you head to the nearest indie picture house to check out the contemporary western?

The Rider follows the meandering journey of a young rodeo rider (Brady Jandreau) as he struggles to recover from a debilitating traumatic brain injury suffered on the back of a bucking bronco. Along the way, he butts heads with his father (Tim Jandreau). Chloé Zhao directed the film from a script she also wrote.

The Rider features stellar direction by Zhao, who creates a luminescent frame. The image of the American West she crafts captures the stunning beauty of the classic westerns of old, while still reminding us of the ever advancing passage of time. It’s a lonely and desolate, but still beautiful place.

As a genre, the Western seems to be having a resurgence. Films like: Hostiles, Hell or High Water, and now The Rider give viewers recent contemporary examples of the classic and mainstay genre. In its work with landscape, The Rider stands right alongside these contemporary classics in the beauty of the scenery. Zhao absolutely kills it with the visual look of this film. Multiple frames are like works of art, featuring a masterfully crafted light which feels almost painted onto the frame. 

Unfortunately, where The Rider suffers is in its script. The film is most definitely a character drama fuelled by the emotion inherent in Brady’s ordeal. As such, the plot takes a back seat to character as we drift through the story with the lost and confused young man. He doesn’t have an objective or goal; rather, he simply struggles to heal. With the script structured in this manner, the narrative pace crawls, causing the movie to feel much longer than its 104 minutes.

Further struggles come from the respective performances. As stated earlier, the film is a character based drama with our leads (particularly Brady) carrying an awful lot of weight. In a counter-productive move to the challenging nature of the material, Zhao fills her cast with cinematic newcomers.

Brady in particular struggles under the weight of his role. He delivers a strongly understated performance. While this can (and has) worked in similar circumstances, the emotions we’re supposed to feel for this character are largely lost. He doesn’t emote. Rather, he feels like he’s wandering through the narrative in a haze of boredom. Could this trouble have been remedied in the hands of a more seasoned performer? Potentially. Unfortunately, with so much of the film hingeing on the strength of Brady as a leading character, The Rider struggles to overcome this weakness.

Continuing with the characters, the film delivers some interesting material with the character of Lilly (Lilly Jandreau). However, a primary problem with each of our players is that the script doesn’t take time to get to know them. In fact, while a tremendous amount of emotional subtext is placed on Lilly as a character, she ultimately feels like a plot device. We barely know her name, and we know nothing about her background. She is absent from the story for long stretches, trotted out only when she needs to punctuate an emotional beat for our yawn-inducing lead. All in all, The Rider struggles with the development of its characters, and the performers struggle under the weight of the material.

Ultimately, unless you’re a fan of director Chloé Zhao, or of revisionist, contemporary westerns, it’s a struggle to truly recommend The Rider. The western is weighed down by pacing issues as well as well as character development problems. Ultimately, the film is unable to conjure the emotions that the plot is heavily reliant upon. Interested in this one? This is probably best viewed as a rental or as a streaming option. 

The Rider is playing around the country now.

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