Chloé Zhao’s The Rider and A Necessary Grace


An unconventional film that uses the raw performances of its non-actors to underscore a potent spiritual core. The Rider is not afraid to dig into the human experience without the glamour and the polish. And what surfaces from this rawness are some deeply rooted questions about what makes life worth living.

The Universal Power of Relationships
There are a few ways in which The Rider could compare to another recently released and well received indie film with untested performances and an unconventional narrative style- Eighth Grade. I bring up that film because in the places where I felt that film fell ever so slightly short, The Rider soars, and perhaps the most important aspect is the way it welcomes the audience in on the cowboys experience. If I am not a middle grade, female adolescent, I might be even less of a cowboy. And so the films setting couldn’t be further away from my own experience as a born and raised city dweller. And yet the film is consistent in narrowing in on what lies behind the cowboy and Western motif, the stuff that narrates on a universal level.

Which is really all about the power of relationships, be it with a horse, an estranged father, or a disabled/intellectually disabled sister/brother.

And this is where the film reveals a strong spiritual core, perhaps standing as one of the most Pastoral films I have seen in a long while, certainly in 2018.

downloadStuck in the Cycles of our Life
While coping with his own disability through the use of different vices, isolation and emotional outbursts, a disability that was the result of an accident in riding that sidelines him for the foreseeable future, the film juxtaposes Brady’s personal struggle against the different relationships that exist in his life- horse, sister, brother, father.  It then uses these relationships to explore that line between giving up and finding the strength to get up and live another day, understanding that he must do this knowing that he has lost the very thing that once defined him and gave him an identity. And as the film moves forward in this struggle it begins to formulate into a question of purpose, a question that reaches into the very nature of our relationship with God in subtle but powerful ways.

There is a captivating scene early on where, caught in a moment of numbing the pain, Brady and a group of friends pray for God’s protection. And as they pray you can see in Brady’s eyes a growing conflict between the certainty of this moment, sitting under the stars with the grand landscape surrounding them, and the uncertainty of what might come when the sun rises again.

And the sunrise becomes indicative of a process or a cycle that finds both joy and despair in constant battle with one another. And it is the same cycle that Brady sees echoed in his father’s own trajectory towards being lost in the grip of the vices that hold him prisoner. And, as he exclaims at one point in the story, he just doesn’t want that to happen for him.

The Prayers of our Brokenness and our Healing
This reality, this constant battle between joy and despair, reaches into the very nature of our relationship with God in subtle but powerful ways. For Brady it becomes a question of purpose, of one day riding again, but with each new day that question becomes increasingly exposed as a call to see the joy in the midst of the despair, in the idea that he might never ride again. The prayer then begins to turn from an expectation that he will find a way back on that horse to beginning to embrace what God has placed right in front of him in a time of brokenness- relationships.

If you have seen the film you will know that one of the most powerful scenes arrives in a moment where he must choose to put his horse down because of a torn leg. With Brady unable to ride him, the horse becomes so desperate to run he breaks through a barbed wire fence and ends up with a deep, irreparable cut that means he will never run again. Brady can’t bring himself to do this alone though and has to bring his father over to help. And yet even as this is happening you can see the same conflict present in his eyes between the certainty of this moment (that he is doing the right thing for his horse) and the uncertainty of what might come when the sun rises again. And in one of the most gut wrenching scenes of 2018 we see him attempting to explain what has happened to his intellectually disabled sister. He tells her he had to put his horse down today. Her response is a simple and definite “no”. No, that is not how this works, thus in her eyes it is not true. And what her response pulls to the surface is the culmination of this conflict between certainty and uncertainty, the imposing question that continues to haunt Brady of what it means to live when your ability to run, or in his case to ride, or in the case of his sister to be able to function normally in society, is taken away. In the case of the animal they are put down. In the case of their own weakness they are expected to go on living. But why does it work this way? Why should it work this way?

download-1A Necessary Grace
The only real certainty that we find here is that it is in relationship we are reminded of our brokenness, and it is in relationship we are reminded that all of us are broken in some way. And it is this understanding that offers us grace. The grace we need to move forward towards a purpose that stands taller than our ability and circumstance. The grace we need to extend to others, which Brady is eventually able to offer to his father as well.

And in showing us this truth, the film is brave enough to suggest that our true identity, the purpose that God has given each of us in the midst of our own struggle between joy and despair, does not come from our accomplishments or our abilities, but rather from our willingness to receive and extend grace in relationship to those God has placed in our midst. This is why we live. And it is when we do this that we are able to begin to see ourselves the way God sees us as well, both in our brokenness and in our ability to love beyond it.

In The Rider it is this simple embrace of both the joy and the despair that governs the cycles of our lives, the cycles that we find in the sunsets and the sunrises, and it is grace that breaks through these cycles and that makes itself aware in the moments which gives us a reason and the strength we need to face another day.

Published by davetcourt

I am a 40 something Canadian with a passion for theology, film, reading writing and travel.

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