The Rider stands as a testament to how easily the conceptual advantages of casting non-actors can be overwhelmed by the practical disadvantages.
When depicting local communities that have rarely found their way into the cinematic spotlight — think Sean Baker’s The Florida Project — avoiding the performative polish of seasoned professionals can breed a sense of legitimate authenticity that recognizable actors cannot capture. Career thespians learn to adopt behavior observed from afar, relying on similar tactics taught in reliable programs and schools. But if a film tries to embody the micro truth of outsider societies on the macro scale of the big screen, finding Hollywood outsiders can be an integral step. Even if they’e not personally native to the world at hand, sometimes a lack of institutional training facilitates an air of freshness difficult, or perhaps even impossible, to attain through more conventional means.
And yet, these newbies place even more importance on the strength of the writing and directing. Since they’re not used to uttering previously-scripted lines of dialogue, their deliveries can sound canned, monotonous, and even dull. In the right hands, this could be a pro; real people, especially in The Rider’s setting in the desolate farmlands of Canada, normally don’t speak in the same manner as diction-obsessed actors. But this pro immediately becomes a con without writing to match that refreshing anti-style, as is the case with director Chloé Zhao’s screenplay. Even if they’re allowed to improv their dialogue, there’s a reason even the most experienced improvers’s work too frequently doesn’t work.
Such material requires directors to compel these rookies to scratch past the surface of the words to find the nuanced subtext and depth of meaning underneath, which is usually where the hearts of their characters reside. And this is what Zhao’s direction fails to achieve. Some might say everyone’s equally to blame — ensemble and helmer alike — but if a director makes the decision to cast non-actors, she must be ready to reckon with the obvious trappings that come with the practice, especially for a film that rests on the shoulders of the acting. The Rider focuses on the lives of rodeo hands, drawn to the allure of bronc-riding’s thrill — a far cry from the impoverished states of their fathers — even though they’re often chewed up and spit out worse off. In a vocation based on cowboys defying death, life-enders of course befall even the best of them. After joyously defining their identity in the ring, how do they get back on their feet when getting back in the saddle is no longer a physically-feasible option?
Zhao’s approach boasts qualities of documentary filmmaking; the camera sensitively resides among these people, who should — and sometimes do — feel like real people thanks to the non-actors embodying them. Cowboys have of course dominated cinemas since the advent of the form, but rarely do they populate such intimate slices of life. The no-frills aesthetic can seem like a docudrama, but not in the traditional sense; instead of forwarding a historical narrative, The Rider quietly revels in the smallest of moments to communicate the sparse vastness of their emotional beings.
But actors are a vital, if not THE MOST vital component of engaging the audience in such introspection. And though they might look and sound the parts inside and out, excavating that reality and externalizing it for us to detect is a tall order. Without that visible process — which these non-actors simply might not know how to do, or even be capable of — The Rider ultimately proves a bit too shallow and, frankly, boring.