Each Monday, I continue to share Western movie reviews as I go through the process of finishing post and releasing my 12 Westerns in 12 Months during 2020. I am watching these films not from an audience perspective but as a filmmaker, as a student of the genre.


Week 117: The Rider


This month, I’m looking at “Modern Westerns”. I was in the middle of making a contemporary take on the Western genre called Treasure Valley in Idaho when our lead actor Jay Pickett had a heart attack and died. The production is suspended because of this tragedy but I am continuing to look at modern Westerns for the next few weeks.

Anyone approaching The Rider for a feel-good experience will be disappointed. The film is a harsh look at present-day Western life, specifically the hardships of rodeo athletes. It is presented in a very realistic way, using actual cowboys, rodeo performers, and other non-actors to keep the story authentic. Having done some of this in my own career, I respect this approach from the filmmakers and it mostly works. Brady Jandreau, the main character, is particularly effective and it’s hard to imagine even the best actor being able to convey what he does in some of these scenes. It’s his life, his pain.

The film is emotionally brutal at times and was hard to watch in light of the recent death on our team. My only criticism of the film is that does not have enough levity. Even the darkest dramas (I’m thinking of films like Leaving Las Vegas) have moments of humor that break up the tragic portrayal of tortured lives. And even in the lowest times of life, we find ourselves laughing. I think Zhao and her fellow filmmakers miss the mark by not having some true bright moments peppered throughout their narrative. However, I still admire their effort and recommend with a heavy heart that you see this movie.

By my rules of what defines a modern Western, this film hits four out of the five criteria:

1. Explores Western culture and lifestyle in a modern context.
2. Story revolves around justice and injustice in a significant way, especially involving one or more outlaws and a figure of authority/law enforcement.
3. Includes the riding of horses.
4. The setting must be in the West or a similar frontier-like location.
5. Characters appear in some modern variation of the traditional Western wardrobe.

Rented on Amazon.