The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (2013)

Written by: Steve Conrad Directed by: Ben Stiller

 

The_Secret_Life_of_Walter_Mitty_posterIt’s easy to be dismissive of a film like The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. The film follows an “inspiration trajectory,” by which I mean its beginning tells us exactly how its going to end. It is the story of Mitty (Ben Stiller) a photography editor for Life magazine who struggles with an inability to form romantic connections, a slightly offbeat (though I wouldn’t say dysfunctional) family and employment precarity, as Life is taken over by a “modernizing” new manager (Adam Scott). Walter’s problems fit into neat thematic categories, so I can understand why certain film critics might be put off by the film’s having a “predictable,” “inspirational” message.

Nonetheless, I am also weary of people deciding whether or not they like a film because of pre-conceived metrics like “predictability” and “preachiness” (in my last few posts I’ve similarly criticized by own heuristic of “subtlety”). The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is particularly cloying in its final moment, but when it comes to appreciating the film, this shouldn’t matter. That’s because, despite being the tale of a spiritual journey, Walter Mitty is decidedly secular.

After a photo by famed photographer James O’Connell goes missing (costing Walter his job), Walter decides to find the photographer, a decision that leads him to overcome his mundane existence and take a helicopter to Greenland. This moment, however, is not a celebration of Walter “facing his fears,” “seizing the day” or some other clichéd value: rather, it’s a mildly captivating moment of magical realist randomness. Smitten by love, and having recently discovered the song “Space Oddity,” Walter takes to the sky. Walter’s journey to Greenland sets up the domino chain of events that define his stories. He proceeds to Iceland, Afghanistan and the Himalayas. Again, one could jump to the conclusion that this trajectory of Walter going from nobody to worldly traveller reeks too much of self-help books to be thematically interesting. This kind of judgement, however, is one I believe critics reach after-the-fact. While watching Walter’s story, I found his character development to be perfectly paced. A weird episode leads him to Greenland, and from there he becomes impressed with his new coolness and experiences self-actualization at a believeable rate. Walter’s character development thus blends in smoothly with his dramatic surroundings. Audiences are thus not left to gaze too closely at the film’s feel good plot, but rather to appreciate the sparkling photography Walter’s journey passes: mirror lakes and abyss-laden mountain ranges.

For a spiritual journey, Walter’s is also a rather silly one. The leadup to his journey features a cutaway to a parody of The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. The conclusion of his journey introduces him to a spiritual guru of sorts, who in fact is a carelessly playful, not all that insightful, famous actor in an extended-cameo. Along, the way Walter is also exposed to a recurring character (Patton Oswalt) who’s very becoming a recurring character is itself a playful gesture.

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is visually ambitious, moderately experimental and certainly has funny moments. These qualities combine to make it at very least an interesting viewing experience. Critics have found reason to criticize it, but, and I levy this criticism cautiously, in this case I feel they are simply thinking too hard, instead of appreciating the easily captivating creative, and sensorial experience that is The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.

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On Chesil Beach (2017)

Written (the screenplay and the original novel) by: Ian McEwan

Directed by: Dominic Cooke

On_Chesil_Beach_(film)          When a film is “so good that bad” that generally means it was written to be appreciated in one way (eg as a serious drama) and ends up appreciated in another (as a comedy). I would not consider On Chesil Beach to be amongst the ranks of “Bad Movies,” however, it’s certainly got a small dose of their character. The film opens to newlyweds Florence Ponting (Saoirse Ronan) and Edward Mayhew (Billy Howle) walking on a beach before returning to a hotel where they dine together. The set up and the dialogue is cartoonishly posh. Perhaps its just because I’m used to thinking of Ronan as a “young” actor, but there’s something about her character’s wedding night that feels fake : it is as if we are watching a parody of proper British couple eating. Having not read the novel on which the film is based, I was left in those moments wondering: “am I about to watch a piece of absurd comedy?”

My hypothesis about the film being a comedy was able to linger a few scenes longer.  For example, I was struck by a flashback scene which features a character abruptly being hit by a train. Something about the delivery was off. It resembled the slapstick violence of Amelie rather than the tragic moment that it was supposed to be.

Soon, however, the film’s seriousness became apparent as the plot went back and forth between present and future: Florence and Edward’s joyous courtship, and their troubled wedding night. This contrast at times felt interesting, however, the darker side of the film’s plot felt poorly paced. It is revealed that Florence has a tragic secret. The nature of this secret quickly becomes obvious, however,  making the build up to it feel underwhelming.

On Chesil Beach thus starts which tonal weirdness, and has a predictable middle. As for its ending: it’s rather sentimental. It’s the kind of thing you’ll like if you’re particularly invested in the story, but will dismiss as predictable if you are not particularly in love with the characters. That said, I have recently written about the danger of using heuristics (words like “predictable,” sentimental” or “subtle”) in criticizing films.Yes, On Chesil Beach has all of those flaws, but the film is an example of how the sum of parts can be greater than the whole.

Sure, on its own, “the end” of On Chesil Beach is too sentimental to feel interesting, yet when viewed with “the middle” in mind, “the end” feels like a stroke of genius. The middle of the film seems to imply the story will be about the revelation of the dark secret, yet that dark secret ultimately takes a back seat to another problem. This other problem, we learn, is what the story was, in a way, about the whole time.

It’s hard to say what the film is ultimately about with out giving too much away, so I’ll say this much. The film sets us up to believe it is a story with a “bad guy.” When the sort of plot-twist happens, however, the film becomes about a different kind of story, one in which there isn’t a bad character, but a good character made bad by the rigidity of social convention. This theme in turn enriches the film’s awkward beginning. The poshness displayed in the early dinner seen can no longer be written off as awkward, unintentional comedy. Instead it comes to fit in within the film’s theme that people can undermine their own best interests, and perhaps principles, because they are actors rigidly playing roles as written in the script of social convention.

On Chesil Beach does not feel like a subtle film, but upon reflection, you may find there’s more to it than immediately meets the eye. It is a film that speaks to how alien and unpleasant the social politics of “the past” can feel. And by default, it also begs the question of how social convention continues to turn people against each other to this day.

Avengers: Infinity War (2018)

Written by: Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely

Directed by: Anthony and Joe Russo

Avengers_Infinity_War_poster[1] When I first saw the trailer for Avengers Infinity War, I mentally sorted it into the so-bad-it’s-good category of film. In other words, it was the kind of thing I secretly desired to see but would make fun of in respectable company. Its trailer reminded me a classic viral video called Too Many Cooks (which you should watch, but in case you don’t the joke is…well…too many characters). The film seemed like the kind of thing that was parodying itself. Surely, I thought, no wise writer would try and fit that many main characters into a story. How, for instance, I asked could they find screen time for the eighth most important character in Black Panther? How, I asked, could they justify bringing in all six Guardians of Galaxy characters, when their’s feels more like a sci-fi than a superhero franchise?

In short, going into the film, part of me knew it had too much going on to be well written and as such I was willing to dismiss it. On the other hand, part of me wanted to believe that the writers were aware of this absurdity, and as such would brilliantly weave all of those fates together into a masterpiece (or at very least present a self-aware piece with Too Many Cooks style humor). Unfortunately, it was the first of these statements that proved true.

Avengers: Infinity War opens with Thor (Chris Hemsworth) confronting Thanos (Josh “I’m having a very good Marvel Month” Brolin). This is the point where I have to admit I’m no comic-book-nerd nor have I systematically seen each Marvel film. That caveat noted, I found this introduction oddly direct yet simultaneously very confusing. We are not introduced to Thanos, we are just expected to know who this purple giant is and somehow make sense of the complex dealings he has with Thor and Loki (Tom Hiddleston). Thanos, it turns out, is a solid villain. His ambition is to save the universe by wiping out half of its population. He is a twisted idealist, who despite being incredibly powerful, makes himself sufficiently vulnerable to regularly engage with, and even take a punch or two, from the film’s heroes.

Following the opening confrontation, the Avengers (an all star team of Marvel heroes) are gradually brought together. This allows for some pleasant comedic moments. Marvel heroes tend to be at least mildly funny, allowing for banter between Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr) and Dr. Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) or Thor and Star-Lord (who, in my Marvel naivety, I briefly confused for the Iron Giant (now that would be a cool, Too Many Cooks-esque cameo)) to be somewhat entertaining. From then on  the film gradually re-introduces characters including The Hulk (a funny, if, inevitably underused, Mark Ruffalo) Spider Man (Tom Holland) Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman), and Captain America (Chris Evans), leaving time for funny banter, as well as some compelling drama (particularly in Thanos’ relationship with Gamora (Zoe Saldana)).

Infinity Wars’ problem, however, is that its humor peaks too early, giving way for dull action scenes. Its comedic style is also off-putting when it comes to its portrayal of Spider Man. That Marvel’s most famous superhero is left fairly one-dimensional (his one personality trait being that he seems to constantly, and nervously seek the approval of Iron Man) rings somewhat hollow. I could rant now about how hollywood needs to get over its intellectual-property bullshit and just accept that there were already good Spider Man movies made in the 2000s and there was no need to reinvent the character, but I suppose that’s going off topic.

Infinity Wars’ drama meanwhile, suffers from being too spread out, due to the film’s dearth of protagonists. Numerous characters die in the film, but these deaths lose their dramatic effectiveness due TO our understanding that they exist in a cinematic universe. In some cases we know these deaths to be temporary: some characters die way too quickly and unmarkedly given their importance in the franchise (also we know some of these characters are slated to appear in future movies). I understand that the writers had their hands tied when it came to writing these “deaths.” More frustrating, however, is the death of one character which is stylistically distinct enough from the others to give off the impression that it is a permanent.  This death scene is nonetheless,  so rushed and early in the script that it does no justice to its target. This character (who I will not name) is a sad casualty of Marvel’s Too-Many-Cooks foolhardiness that simply left them without enough screen timing to meaningfully tend to all the characters they chose to depict.

RIP *CHARACTER NAME CENSORED TO PREVENT SPOILERS*: you will be missed.

Perhaps Marvel nerds will love Infinity War. It certainly takes the Avengers’ struggle to a new level. Nonetheless, I suspect casual fans (especially ones like me who don’t watch the movies for their action scenes) may BE disappointed by the film’s narrative structure. Thanos is an engaging villain, and Thor, The Hulk, the Guardians and perhaps some of the others are fun protagonists. Unfortunately, the film seems to rely to heavily on the premise of “look at these cool characters fighting,” rather than truly considering how best to make their narratives collide.

Deadpool 2

Written by: Rhett Reese, Paul Wernick and Ryan Reynolds. Directed by: David Leitch

Deadpool_2_poster     When I first saw Deadpool it struck me as one of the biggest compromises I’d ever seen: it broke enough rules to call itself experimental, while still meeting all expectations as a big-budget, crowd-pleasing action movie. I was pleasantly surprised by it, I’ll say that much.

I nonetheless did not think Deadpool 2 could be a good idea. Deadpool was interesting as a standalone work, but nothing it featured (fourth wall breaking, referentialism, self-deprecation, and excessive violence on the part of its protagonist) would be interesting when employed a second time around. My thoughts were all but confirmed in the film’s opening scenes in which Deadpool (Ryan Reynolds) narrates his killings with Dolly Parton’s “9 to 5” blaring in the background.

Then a plot twist happened. I won’t say what it is, and for your sake you probably shouldn’t search it (don’t spoil the future moment). What I will say is that twist changed my impression of what I was watching for the better.

Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi succeeded because its writers asked the question “what kind of story should a sequel be?” and got the answer right. Rather than simply revisiting the gags and powers of its characters, it used them as an infrastructural base for telling a new kind of story: one that questions the nature of the Star Wars universe rather than simply continuing it. While I wouldn’t say Deadpool 2 challenges the nature of its predecessor, it also manages to be a significantly different kind of story, that nonetheless, uses the original film as a springboard for its success. Deadpool, as introduced in the original film, is an anti-hero. His motives rarely seem as pure as they should be, as he seems more driven by the prospect of annihilating his enemies than by the ideal of fighting for justice. Deadpool 2 gives us a character with those same traits, but one who has matured enough so that he is also ideal driven. Then the plot twist happens, temporarily shattering Deadpool’s sense of purpose. The result of this trauma is not Deadpool regressing back entirely to who he was at his worst. The shock does, however stimulate various elements of his persona including his hot-headedness and immaturity. In essence, Deadpool is a character created to entertain with his punches and foul mouth, yet he manages to come off as thoughtfully developed.

Deadpool 2 is also bolstered by its supporting cast. Josh Brolin plays an antagonist who is not stunningly original, but is made compelling via the emotional weight laid-bare on his rugged face. Karon Soni, whose character, Dopinder, appears in taxi-cab gags in the first movie, returns as a quasi-side kick in this film. Dopinder is not Deadpool’s only sidekick, however. At one point in fact, Deadpool recruits a whole team of them. While these characters come across as parodies of superheroes, many are in fact (loose) adaptations of Marvel comic characters.

Most prominent among the film’s side characters, however, is Russell Collins (Julian Dennison), an anti-hero in, ironically, a film about an anti-hero. Russel is a mistreated orphan with super powers, and his appearance essentially makes Deadpool Hunt for the Wilderpeople with a big budget. This superficial textual similarity, however, contributes to Deadpool’s originality and effectiveness as a piece of story telling. Hunt for the Wilderpeople tells the story of an orphan bonding with a curmudgeon over a prolonged period while they are chased by a comically, pathetic antagonist. Deadpool 2 challenges Deadpool and Russell to develop similar bonds, but in a very different context: one that is higher-stakes, much faster-paced.

Deadpool 2 is full of silly references, but as superhero films go, it manages to be thematically deep. This depth goes beyond the story of Deadpool and Russell. A prolonged portion of the film is set in a prison, a horrible place in which people’s pain is ignored and inter-inmate bullying goes unchecked. For a moment, it seems, the tough-on-crime logic of super hero movies is paused to critique the school-to-prison pipeline and prisons in general.

Of course, Deadpool 2 would not be a Deadpool movie if it was fully idealistic, and it ultimately maintains its protagonist’s commitment to gore. Even the relatively pacifistic Colossus (Stefan Kapičić (who repeatedly tries to teach Deadpool that killing is not the X-Man way) is implicated in the film’s violent ethos, at one point electrocuting a character in an unmentionable place. Whether this is a shortcoming or not is hard to say. Deadpool 2 ultimately comes across as a pretty strong superhero movie. Whether it could have been more, and whether it needed to be, is a question too abstract to answer.

Revenge (2017)

Written and Directed by: Coralie Fargeat

255300R1There are two ways to watch Coralie Fargeat’s Revenge. One is as a simple splatter film replete with both serious and Looney Tunes style violence. Another is as an exploration, if not a statement, on contemporary gender politics.

Revenge follows Jen (Matilda Lutz) as she stays with her romantic partner Richard (Kevin Janssen) at his extravagant hunting lodge in a desolate location. While Jen at first appears to be living the high life, dramatic twists in her fate leave her sexually assaulted and nearly dead. Bloodied and lost, she develops a taste for vengeance.

Jen’s story exposes a tension between different generations of/approaches to feminism. She has few lines in the movie, and prior to her assault she is most prominently portrayed as being seductive towards Richard as well as his guests. The camera regularly shows her from the waist down. Were the film shot by a male director one might be inclined to call Jen’s portrayal exploitative: while Jen’s is a story about sexual assault, the camera nonetheless objectifies her. This is a conclusion many second wave feminists would likely reach.

Revenge, however, was written and directed by a woman, leading me to think there’s more than meets the eye when it comes to its exploitative appreance. Critics of rape culture will often note that victims of sexual assault are blamed for what they wore, how they were behaving, etc.. Therefore, one could interpret the highly sexualized portrayal of Jen as a way of drawing attention to the problem of victim-blaming; a way of making clear that nothing justifies what happened to her.

Revenge does not only hit at divides in feminist thought: it also depicts fault lines within patriarchal male society. Perhaps you have become aware of a sub-type of misogynist known as the “incel” (involuntarily celebate). Incels essentialy see the world as one giant teen-movie high school in which women shun nerds for attractive/jock men (known in incel parlance as “Chads”). The difference between incels and stereotypical nerds, however, is that incels do not embrace their romantic awkwardness while finding self-worth in academic pursuits, fan-culture, etc. Instead, incels aspire to be like the Chads, and when they fail to reach this status, turn to violent, misogynistic revenge fantasies as a source of personal comfort.

Revenge features two main misogynist antagonists. One is, effectively, an incel, and one is a “Chad.” The incel character is the one who commits the sexual assault, but the Chad emerges as the film’s ultimate villain. In some ways, this serves as a commentary on the relationship between power dynamics and oppression. In the company of the Chad, the incel character is shaky, weak and shows he may even have some moral principles. When he is the most powerful man in a room, however, he become the tyrant himself, as further evidenced in a scene in which he gleefully drowns a spider with his urine.

So is Revenge saying that harmful behaviour is ultimately the result of personal insecurity? Does it preach that the path to overcoming oppression lies in challenging power relations and bullying-dynamics across the board? Perhaps its hints at that idea, but ultimately it’s a film that’s limited in its ability to philosophize due to its stylistic commitments. Therefore, the film’s real employment of power dynamics is to create two different kinds of villains. The Chad character is sinister. The incel, however, becomes Wiley Coyote. At times he is menacing, but more often than not, he is the victim of his own, and others’ plots.

Cinematically, Revenge’s depiction of its incel character is effective. As a film with very few characters and a simple story, its character differentiation is essential to its quality. Politically, however, the film’s depiction of the incel character is problematic. The character exists in a weird gray area between coming off as despicable and as worthy of pity. The result of the character’s coming across as pitiful is that the script does not seem to take his initial crime seriously. Conversely, by making the character’s pitifulness a joke, the film also fails in its attempt to reveal the complex, not-black-and-white, mindset that may  underline his criminal behavior.

In short Revenge reeks of politics, but the scent is empty. Is Revenge feminist or  is it not? Is it a critique of rape culture or is it not? Is it a statement about the root causes of criminality or is it not? I’m not sure. Then again, at very least Revenge is an artistic success in that it takes an overly simple concept, and with just enough pinches of cinematographic whimsy, character differentiation, and absurd grotesqueness, manages to make it engaging. In short, there are two ways to watch Revenge. Even if you find it comes up short in its explorations of gender politics, it at very least makes for a decent splatter film.

 

Disney Dreamers and Oppressors: a bug or a feature?

Disney occupies two conflicting places in my imaginary. On the one hand, Disney is the source of some of my favourite songs (“Under the Sea,” “Why Should I Worry,” “I Just Can’t Wait to be King,” “Two Worlds one Family,” “We Are One” etc) as well as the animation studio behind some of my favourite cartoon characters (Sebastian, Lumiere, Napoleon & Lafayette, etc). Part of me thus sees Disney as part of modern children’s folklore.

On the flip side, there’s the part of me that sees Disney as a massive brand that iron-fistedly enforces its IP rights, perpetuates unnecessary gendered-market-segmentation through its heavily girl-coded “Disney Princess” concept, and is predictable and sappy in its story telling. The first two issues are of limited relevance to film review, but the third issue is one I can talk about. If part of me has strong affection for Disney, why do I so deeply associate their brand with cheesiness?

Part of the answer came to me when I watched video-essayist Lindsay Ellis’ analysis of Beauty and the Beast in which she notes that Disney renaissance films (the animated musicals of the 90s) are characterized by their giving their main characters a belted song about not fitting in/needing to search for purpose. These songs are “Part of Your World,” (The Little Mermaid) “Belle (There must be more than this provincial life…)” (Beauty and the Beast), “Just Around the River Bend,” (Pocahontas) “I Can Go the Distance,” (Hercules), “Reflection” (Mulan), and (years later) “How Far I’ll Go” (Moana). While I don’t think these songs in themselves are innately cheesy (it took Ellis’ video for me to notice they’re a pattern), they create an oversimplified binary between their singers and the world around them. The singer has a dream, and the authorities in their life thus come to occupy the opposite position of dream-oppressor.

kerchak new Of course, the notion of having a dream that differentiates you from those around you is broad and thus rightfully belongs in a lot of stories.  However, some films make clear that dreamer-and-dream-oppressor binaries are a trope and not mere reflections of everyday reality: Tarzan, for instance. The film tells the story of a boy who is adopted by a gorilla mother. As he grows up his first dream is to be accepted as a gorilla. His mother’s husband, Kerchak, meanwhile fills the role of dream oppressor. Kerchak initially advises his partner against adopting a human because…well, he’s not a gorilla. Tarzan grows up under the constant, blatantly-hostile gaze of Kerchak. Therefore, Tarzan’s anxiety about his identity is not simply the result of teasing from immature kids or an unnecessary childhood-neuroticism; rather it’s particularly the product of his adoptive father refusing to identify as his father, and explicitly stating that Tarzan doesn’t belong. While Tarzan is perhaps best remembered as a romance between a gorilla-man and a woman from typical human society, the film’s real arc is built around Tarzan’s search for approval from Kerchak.

While I can’t say for sure at what age predictable/unsubtle dialogue becomes apparent (I was six the last time I saw Tarzan and all I remember is being bothered by the sight of Tarzan sliding around on tree bark since that would surely hurt his hand), speaking as an adult who likes good children’s media, this is my biggest problem with Tarzan. His tension with Kerchak loses some of its effectiveness by virtue of how contrived it seems. We don’t see Kerchak and Tarzan as characters at odds, but stand-ins for the ideas of dreaming-misfit and dream-oppressor.

One reality that Tarzan fails to capture is that real-life dream oppressors are not necessarily real people. Rather they are caricatures of real people that exist in the heads of dreamers. These “oppressors” may be ambivalent about or even supportive of the “dreamers,” but the dreamer’s biases and neuroses lead them to pessimistically ignore this complexity. This concept is illustrated in Tiny Furniture in which the protagonist rails at her mother for being unsympathetic towards her struggles, even as her mother is, in fact, largely a laid-back, non-judgmental artist (then again, I note in my review that Tiny Furniture goes too far in this direction).

So should Disney strive not to portray characters like Kerchak? Not necessarily. Again, Disney can be understood as a source of modern folklore, and as such its approach to storytelling can be understood as part of a tradition: a tradition that includes belted-search-for-purpose-songs and dream oppressor characters. So how can the maintenance of this tradition be balanced with the need to create richer stories? One film that effectively navigates this dichotomy is Moana.

images-1            Moana’s opening is the opposite of subtle. When she is surely way too young to process the concept, her father leads a song to her explicitly laying out that her duty is to stay on their island and not wander off. Unlike Tarzan, however, Moana takes advantage of the fact that it overstates is message early on, to become more subtle as the film develops. Moana’s father is about as explicit as Kerchak about being her dream-oppressor, but his influence over her is quickly diminished as she escapes to sea. While Moana’s psychology is no doubt shaped by her having been raised by a dream-oppressor, her conflicts with other antagonists (cute-pirate-creatures, Tamatoa the crab, the vastness of the ocean and of course Te Kā the lava monster) are really what define the script. In essence, having a dream oppressor is part of Moana’s mythology, bringing her into the Disney folkloric-imaginery, but it is not the be all and end all of her story.

           Patterns in film are not necessarily a bad thing. There’s something satisfying about seeing, for instance, enough Wes Anderson films and saying “ah, ha, there’s that familiar artistic element!” Children’s films, however, must be careful when they use patterns. Since they are created to be consumed as direct stories, and not necessarily pieces of art, their being predictable can particularly undermine their quality. Clichés are unavoidable, as nothing is original. The question is, how aware is Disney of its dream-oppressor cliché, and how creative can Disney be in transforming it for the better?

The Rider (2017)

Written and Directed by: Chloe Zhao

 

251038R1-1What constitutes a modern western? One answer is that it’s a film that involves a hero who rides into town, miraculously solves a problem and swoops out, but is not set in the old west. That’s one answer. But Chloe Zhao’s The Rider get’s at what’s perhaps truly most striking about Westerns: not their structures, but their blatant content: wide open plains, with cowboys and horses bursting through them.

 

The Rider’s protagonist, Brady Blackburn (Brady Jandreau) is an avid rodeo participant and horse trainer. He has recently suffered a major head injury: an injury that seemingly means he will never rodeo again. Temporarily unable to do his job Brady is left to find work at a grocery store and wilt under the judgmental gaze of his father (Tim Jandreau). The film follows his recovery, and the dreams and responsibilities he takes on along the way. It is a simple story, one that works within the confines of realism. It has a plot arc, but barely.

 

The Rider thus tells us what it means to be a real life, modern cowboy. It does not make the cowboy a metaphor for some “realistic” kind of adventurism, and heroism. Rather, it depicts a person with real cowboy dreams in his struggle to live those dreams within the trenches of reality. One way it does this is through depicting Brady’s affectionate relationships with his horses. The camera zooms in on them, and we the see the expression in their eyes. This in turn leads to another of the film’s themes: the relationship between man and horse. Horses can ultimately be treated as a commodity: they can, for instance, be sold when one’s family is in trouble.

 

Brady appears to differ from his father in that he cares for the individual horses. In Brady’s eyes, his father’s lack of care for the horses is inseparable from his lack of care for his son. The complex truth that the film exposes, however, is that this is not the case. Brady’s father’s love for him is never in doubt, even as he makes it frustratingly difficult for Brady to see tgat.

 

This different viewpoint on the equality of horse and man becomes important later in the film. Brady argues that both horse and rider have a purpose: and when a rider cannot ride, he has lost this purpose. This in turn raises another theme: the idea of purposelessness, of giving up. When a character falls to these depths, it can make for a gripping narrative element, but it can also feel forced. Life has much to offer and even in states of great pain and misery, people can find new ways to live it. Zhao’s decision to have Brady simply ponder giving up is thus cleverly nuanced. She successfully shows an overwhelming, personal, psychological drama, while acknowledging that such dramas need not become all-consuming or define a person’s life.

 

The Rider is based on a true story: Zhao says it straddles the line between documentary and fiction. Brady Jandreau is a real life, incapacitated former rodeo star. I discovered this while watching the film’s credits. In some ways it was a frustrating discovery. Could the film have the thematic depth I thought it did if it simply portrayed real life (granted, Brady Blackburn is not an exact recreation of Jandreau)? Perhaps you too will be struck by this feeling, but remember it is not necessary. Just because The Rider is based in truth does not take away the fact that it is a narrative: a narrative an author could have built from scratch. Furthermore, its basis in reality reinforces its educational character.

 

The Rider is a work that, unless your grew up with Lakota Rodeo culture, will show you a world you don’t know. It is sad, but not insurmountably so. It is simple, but engaging and therefore a work many should find enjoyable