‘The Rider’ Cannes Review: Spectacular Rodeo Tale Is the Festival’s Sleeper Hit

Director Chloe Zhao shot her drama on a reservation in Montana, and cast real-life rodeo figures as versions of themselves

Some films arrive at Cannes with the eyes of the world already fixed upon them, while others make a more a subtle entrance. Building on ebullient early reactions, and on the tips festivalgoers share with each other over late-night glasses of rosé or in the long lines to get into the next competition film, those smaller works grow in reputation and stature.

They may enter the festival without much fanfare, but they leave as conquering heroes.

Start prepping the laurels now, because Chloé Zhao’s “The Rider” looks to be this year’s word-of-mouth hit. The story of a young rodeo hotshot grappling with the aftermath of an accident that leaves him unable to ride, the film has won over critics and filmmakers alike. Even the local audience has joined the fray, filling up a public screening of the Directors’ Fortnight film this morning at a rinky theater miles from the Croisette.

All have responded to the film’s sweeping visual grandeur. Shot on South Dakota’s Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, “The Rider” marries the majestic vistas of the greatest American westerns with a deeply interior story of a cowboy having to renegotiate his identity. The central question is both universal and hyper-specific: Once you’ve spent your life defining yourself as X, who are you when X no longer exists?

It’s a question Brady grapples with every day after a rodeo accident leaves him with a mangled frame, a metal plate in his head and strict orders to never get back in the saddle again. And so he spends his convalescence taking care of himself, taking care of his younger sister Lilly and taking of his friend Lane, whose own rodeo-derived brain damage has left him paraplegic and mute.

If the film was just a richly evocative drama about people who choose a life path they know will end poorly but can think of no greater pursuit, it would still be one most interesting films of the festival. But “The Rider” is so much more than that for the simple fact that all these people are real. The character of “Brady” is played by real-life ex-rodeo hotshot Brady Jandreau; “Lilly” is Lilly Jandreau; and try googling Lane Scott to find some incredible videos.

“The Rider” lives in a fine zone between documentary and narrative fiction. It is neither fully one nor the other. Zhao spent hours working her cast, acclimating them to the camera, helping them feel comfortable just being themselves around the constraints of a shoot, but at the same time she also developed a script, building the film around a fully satisfying narrative arc. The effects are really spectacular, feeding into a film that is both intimate and grand, and one of the true gems from this year’s festival.

But don’t take it from me. Go ahead — ask anyone else.