By Andrew Harwood
Filmmaking exists based on the nature of creation. Where problems exist, however, is in regard to financing. Financing a film is a significant investment, hence causing problems for many aspiring filmmakers trying to break into the game.
However, we can thank independent cinema for leading the revolution of great films without the necessary budget.
Independent cinema, or “Indie cinema,” has seen an incredible resurgence since the 1990s, mainly due to young ambitious and passionate filmmakers dedicating themselves to making a film with little to no budget.
Where these indie filmmakers thrive, though, are film festivals such as Cannes, Venice, Berlinale, Toronto or Sundance, where distributors view films in hopes of picking up distribution rights and presenting the film to a greater audience.
Personally, I am very fond of independent cinema, given that it has allowed me to view so many different films I never would’ve imagined. So this week, we’re going to be focusing on a particular independent film, Chloé Zhao’s “The Rider.”
Released in 2017 by Sony Pictures Classics, “The Rider” follows Brady, an ex-bronc rider who is recently recovering from a substantial injury. Along with his deadbeat father, autistic sister and bodacious friends, Brady struggles to find purpose again while thinking his riding days are over.
Written and directed by Zhao, “The Rider” is unique in that it was filmed with original, untrained actors of the Lakota Sioux tribe. Along with being filmed in the Dakota region, “The Rider” is a close study on growing up amid constant fear and pressure.
What’s probably most striking about this film is its cinematography. Anchored by meticulous close-up shots paired with dark imagery and light, Zhao aims to immerse her audience into not just the story, but the setting itself.
Darkness surrounds Brady as we first meet him, catching glimpses of his trailer park home, riddled with signs of obvious lower-class socioeconomic status. We soon learn, through a flashback and a quite nasty gash on his head, that Brady had been in a serious accident just weeks before.
The darkness here is meant to encapsulate the sadness that is Brady’s situation: being no longer able to ride and stuck at home with his no-good father. Darkness doesn’t just persist throughout the film though — it looms over like a cloud, only breaking away toward the end of the film when Brady comes to a realization of having hope.
In comparison to the darkness of the film, light is used to portray scenes that are more sentimental or happy. Brady’s fireside chat with friends, though at night, is enlightened by the glow of fire, illuminating the faces of these wannabe rodeo men as they gleefully drink and laugh with not a care in the world. The rodeo, a symbol for masculinity and pride, serves an even greater purpose of escape for these boys, who never aspired to do much more than their parents.
The same thing, in relation to light, can be said of Brady’s relationship with his sister Lilly, with whom he spends most of his time. Sunlight gleams through the window of their truck as they share stories, and light bursts from a carnival as they roam around fairgrounds later in the film.
Turning back to the fact that the film is made with untrained actors, it is important to note the booming chemistry that comes from this tactic. Conversations are incredibly organic, given the pre-existing relationships between characters, more so to the point where the film — even though a narrative feature — behaves in a way that is reminiscent of a documentary feature.
However perfect in image and acting the film is, Zhao often sides with style over substance. An opening slow-motion montage of Brady’s horse is nevertheless beautiful, but ever-so lacking in purpose. Such can be said about several other moments in the film where Zhao leans on beauty to replace the story. It is the beauty you remember, after all.
Overall an incredibly well-shot film, filled with deep underlying themes of maturity and purpose, “The Rider” stands tall in the genre of “indie” cinema, leading the path to Zhao’s recent win at Venice with her new film “Nomadland.”