At the beginning of The Rider, a young man (Brady Jandreau) wakes up, goes to the bathroom, looks at himself in the mirror, and removes a bandage covering part of his skull. This takes a little doing, as the bandage was stapled there. Underneath, metal sutures protrude from a shaved patch of his head.
This is not a special effect. Jandreau was a rodeo rider of rising fame until a horse threw him and stomped on his head. Those sutures hold on a metal plate that was used to repair his skull.
You may be amazed to learn that you can get your skull crushed by a horse and live to tell about it. What amazing luck, you might think. But Brady, who is 21, doesn’t quite see it that way. Working with horses is what he feels he was born to do. If he listens to the advice of doctors who tell him he can never ride again because another blow to the head would likely kill him, what is left in his life?
The Rider is a movie I probably wouldn’t have gone to see if I was just looking for an evening’s entertainment. It’s one of the best parts of writing about movies that you occasionally come across a film that moves you when you weren’t expecting it.
Not quite a documentary, The Rider was directed by Chloé Zhao, a young Chinese filmmaker who has a fascination with the image of America’s West. I mention that she is Chinese only because it so often seems that filmmakers who were not born in this country have produced some of the most discerning portraits of that region. She met Brady before his accident, while working on an earlier film, and became fascinated by his way of life. The accident and his attempts to rebuild his life gave her dramatic structure for a film, one in which Brady plays a loosely fictionalized version of himself.
I’m not sure why Zhao didn’t go for a straight documentary; my guess is that it allows her to make shortcuts by dramatizing actions that could only otherwise be talked about. The result is far more successful than Clint Eastwood’s recent The 15:17 to Paris, in which the three young Americans who foiled a terrorist attack on a French train play themselves in a recreation of that story. As we watch Brady, who lives in a trailer with his sister and father in an area of South Dakota that, for all its beauty (well captured by cinematographer Joshua James Richards), may as well be the middle of nowhere, struggle to find a way to make a living, we come to understand the pull that the life of a cowboy has on him.
The British film Beast is somewhat less successful in bringing us into the head of a person who makes what can only be described as bad choices. She is Moll (Jessie Buckley), a young woman living with her family on the island of Jersey, off the southeast coast of England. Though her life initially appears peaceful, we soon see that all is not well. She seems much younger than her 27 years, largely because her repressive mother (Geraldine James) treats her like a child, having taken her out of school as a teenager. Chafing at her restrictions, Moll finds escape when she meets a young man, Pascal (Johnny Flynn), a loner who poaches on the local estates. That her family doesn’t like him pushes her closer to him, an equation that has an even stronger effect when he is suspected of a series of murders.
Is he the beast of the title? We’re inclined to think so, especially as Moll seems to fit the place of the beauty: Actress Buckley may not be classically beautiful, but with her flaming red curls and off-center smile, she fits the definition of a movie star, someone you can’t take your eyes off of when they’re on the screen. Her increasingly unhinged performance is reason enough to see the film, as is the assured direction of newcomer Michael Pearce, even if his skills as a writer are less obvious. The finale made me feel less like I wanted to go back and rewatch the film as that I needed to, which is not at all the same thing.