Posted April 18, 2018
By Director of Programming, Brian Ackerman
When you go to the Toronto Film Festival, your hope is always that you’ll wander into something you didn’t know about and be completely blown away. It’s the universal festival fantasy. It doesn’t happen often, and some years it doesn’t happen at all, but this year it did, and that film was The Rider. Months later I still feel the same way; it seems, if anything, to have deepened in my memory and I only hope that it holds up on re-viewing.
It’s not that I knew nothing about The Rider, but rather that what I knew was completely off-putting. It’s a small indie about a rodeo-rider, and it stars non-professionals who largely play themselves. I can think of few things that interest me less, or seem less promising, than rodeo, and for the most part I don’t even like westerns (yes, I’ll confess to that big hole in my sensibility). I went because it was in between two other films and I had nothing else to see for the moment. And then watching the first few minutes, I thought, NOPE, this won’t work; it’s slow and gritty, and sure enough, it really is about rodeo and really is a western. The combination of all these elements just confirmed that I’d be walking out soon, something that you do at festivals a fair amount because there are many other films beckoning. And then…..I just settled in, and it got more and more interesting, until it became completely mesmerizing, and ultimately, hauntingly poetic. The Rider is the sort of film that lulls you in and keeps you until you’re not even aware of how much it has you. And then I began to think: really, this is only director Chloe Zhao’s second film? Really? And these are a bunch of non-professional actors? And it’s really true that the story is inspired by the protagonist, who’s quite amazing—a real-life rodeo star who also had a career-ending injury in the ring (no, that’s not a spoiler; the film begins after the injury). Really? It makes it all sort of miraculous. To me, it actually achieves what most westerns clumsily strive for but don’t realize: reaching for a kind of mythic plane that the narrative plays out on, of lone characters wrestling with their fate between desperation and a parched, desolately beautiful landscape.
I’m not going to say that everyone is going to like it. I don’t think it necessarily has that kind of universal appeal. But I suspect a lot of people will experience it as I did, as something that achieves a kind of gritty, lyrical magic.
The Rider is now playing at the JBFC. Get your tickets here.