At a certain point during The Rider, you realize that these can't be trained actors and actresses. Not because they're bad performers, though they're admittedly not Al Pacino and Meryl Streep. Because it's all too real. The way they handle and ride horses; the way they interact with each other. It shouldn't work, yet it does perfectly.
On Wikipedia, the premise was originally described as "A young rodeo cowboy is injured when he is thrown from his horse." This is a sparse film for sure, but the catalyst is not the plot. It can't be summed up in a sentence; though not much happens in The Rider, there's a depth and an importance to these characters that makes their interactions that much more significant.
Brady (Brady Jandreau) is a rodeo rider in South Dakota who recently suffered a massive head injury after being tossed from his horse. His father (Tim Jandreau) is an unsupportive drunk; his sister (Lilly Jandreau) has mental disabilities. His friend Lane (Lane Scott) is even worse off; he was paralyzed after his own accident and now struggles with the most basic activities.
You may have noticed that the starring family shares a last name, and Lane is playing himself. That's because The Rider is based on a true story; writer-director Chloé Zhao met the Jandreau family while filming her first feature and turned the real-life incident of Brady's accident into a film of its own.
Brady and his friends talk about being cowboys, but it's clear that those days are long gone. To them, being a cowboy means riding horses, building bonfires, singing songs. There's a youthful optimism there, but also a sadness. That sadness is compounded whenever we see Brady's jagged head scar, or Lane in his wheelchair.
But they never give up. It may be because this is the only world they know; it could also be because they're human beings and press on despite seemingly insurmountable odds. Zhao makes the distinction irrelevant; she innately understands that, while getting an audience behind your characters requires more than throwing them on-screen, we are invested in those projected before us. Tie a straightforward narrative to it, plus some impossible-to-fake realism, and you can tap into a weight that many films cannot find.
At first it's unclear how good a rider Brady was, or how much the horses really mean to him. Is he crushed because of the injury and loss of his livelihood, or is it something more? That question is answered during the film's most stunning sequence, where Brady trains an untamed horse and you see how perfect handles the task. That's when you realize that this never could've been done with professional actors; you can't fake that kind of connection. You can see why Zhao knew this was a powerful story, and why she needed the people who lived it to act it out.
Hopefully The Rider won't inspire many copycats; not every tale from the heartland should be told in such a manner. There aren't many people as unique as the Jandreaus, nor bonds as deep as these that warrant their story being shared cinematically.