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Ride

In 1991, country superstar Garth Brooks crooned, "Well, it's bulls and blood/It's the dust and mud/It's the roar of a Sunday crowd/It's the white in the knuckles/The gold in the buckle/He'll win the next go-'round." The lyrics, about the ups and downs of a man who dedicates everything to the rodeo lifestyle, rattled around in my head as I watched the opening sequence of writer-director-star Jake Allyn's feature film debut "Ride." As we follow a beat-up old cowboy walking through the bowels of a stadium and out towards the rodeo ground, it is as if the song had come to visceral life. I could feel the buzzing energy of the crowd. I could smell the dirt and the dust. I could even feel the blood and the pain.

Allyn stars as Peter, a bull rider fresh out of prison, having served four years for vehicular manslaughter. Peter is an addict, hooked on alcohol, opioids, and rodeo. His addiction led to the crash, which not only ended a life but also injured his baby sister Virginia (Zia Carlock). Picked up from the slammer by his grandfather Al (Forrie J. Smith), a one-time rodeo rider turned preacher, Peter is estranged from his parents, John (the always stellar C. Thomas Howell), also a former rodeo star turned rancher and FFA teacher, and Monica (Annabeth Gish), the local sheriff. Both are struggling to forgive their son, although the accident led to the early detection of cancer in Virginia. 

Just as Peter arrives back in town - Stephenville, Texas, aka the Cowboy Capital of the World - Virginia's cancer comes roaring back, and the family needs $40K on top of their insurance before she can begin the aggressive treatment she needs. Soon, the newly sober Peter is back riding bulls in hopes that the prize money will help, and John finds himself selling everything he owns and contemplating risky schemes to raise the funds. The pressure pushes them both into contact with shady drug dealer Tyler (Patrick Murney, a livewire), who is as comfortable ruthlessly branding someone with a hot iron as he is tipping his hat and saying “ma’am.” 

Although crime and melodrama elements pulse through the film, they are not the focus. At its heart, "Ride" is a character study, examining men like Peter and John and where they fit in today's world. But it's also trying to make sense of that very world. What does it say about today's world when so often a family with two incomes still can't afford the life-saving cancer treatment their daughter needs? How can anyone navigate that kind of truth? John, Peter, and Al's rocky relationship with the rodeo becomes a metaphor for life. Late in the film, Peter confesses, "When I'm riding bulls, when that shoot opens, all my pain, all that emptiness, just goes away. For eight seconds, it's just like all I gotta do is hold on." Even with all the unpredictable chaos that comes with bull riding, for someone like Peter, it's something tangible, a goal that is occasionally achievable. 

Like his actors C. Thomas Howell and Forrie J. Smith, Allyn has a bull riding and rodeo background. This fact is as clear from his gangly gait as it is in the rich world-building of his film. Filmed on location in real rodeos, Allyn transports you into this world with a symphony of clanging metal gates, cheering crowds, and omnipresent country music. Here's a land lit by the dreamy red, white, and blue light of fireworks and the harsh, unforgiving light of floodlights. A land of bulls named Tempest and Twister, of rodeo clowns in all their grotesque grandeur and glory, of good 'ol boys in ten-gallon hats and rodeo queens with their hair piled high on their heads. Within this cacophony of clichés, the script, co-written by Allyn with Josh Plasse, and the director's keen work with his actors keep us grounded in the sincere and the personal.

Just before I watched the film, I had finished reading Louise Brooks' memoir, in which she writes that every great director "holds the camera on the actors' eyes in every vital scene," recalling that G.W. Pabst once told her the audience must "see it in the actors' eyes." This is something Allyn, as an actor turned director, knows instinctively. In one of the film's most emotionally devastating scenes, Allyn holds his unwavering camera on C. Thomas Howell's face as John hears the bad news about his daughter's cancer. First, his gaze holds on his terminally ill daughter asleep in her hospital bed. Then, he turns to face the doctor, whose chipper voice as she says the expensive oncology hospital "technically" has a spot for the girl who might as well be nailed on a chalkboard. It's all there in his eyes. The fear for his daughter's life. The disdain for the hoops of modern medicine. The anxiety over how on earth he's going to pay for this new treatment. His gaze contains every conflicting emotional state all at once. 

In another pivotal scene, a bruised and bloodied Peter stares at an Oxy pill that has fallen to the floor of the locker room. His rib is broken, and he’s in unbelievable pain, but he’s still got one more bull to ride. Al tells him to “cowboy up.” As Peter’s eyes focus on the pill, we know his ride never actually ends, that just like the rodeo, this thing we call life is a constant battle. Allyn plays Peter as a man haunted by ghosts. The ghost of the woman he accidentally killed. The ghost of his family that no longer speaks to him—the ghost of his former self. The weight of these ghosts pull at his very being, his mouth nearly always fixed in a frown. His lanky body never quite fits anywhere. 

“Ride” works best when it focuses on the core relationship issues between Peter, John, and Al, three generations of rodeo men navigating a changing world. Peter feeds his addictions to help his family live up to the expectations set up by bull riders of the past. John won't take charity to pay for his daughter's medical expenses, stubbornly insisting that he must take responsibility for his family. Al pushes both to extremes through a mixture of prayer and old-fashioned machismo. The film never condemns these men but doesn't glorify them either. Instead, Allyn leaves it to the audience to make up their minds.

Not all of the film's many characters are as well woven into the tapestry as they could be. Sheriff Monica is mostly underutilized, although a scene in which she lets hot coffee scald her fingers gives us a glimpse of her inner turmoil, and a third-act reveal gives Gish the chance to play in the same landscape of murky morals as the boys. While I did enjoy the scenes with Peter's other sibling, Noah (Josh Plasse), and his girlfriend Libby (Laci Kaye Booth), which offer color and texture to the world of Stephenville and the ordinary people who call it home, I almost wish we could have spent more time Peter's baby sister Virginia instead. 

"Ride" is a film overstuffed with themes, ideas, and characters, but it works because it's made with the kind of urgency that comes from a filmmaker who has to tell this story and get it out on celluloid right now, or they'll bust. This is a film that gets the modern American West, a place rife with traditions and contradictions, clinging on to its way of life like a stick stuck in the mud even when the mud begins to dry up and turn to dust. 

Marya E. Gates

Marya E. Gates is a freelance film and culture writer based in Los Angeles and Chicago. She studied Comparative Literature at U.C. Berkeley, and also has an overpriced and underused MFA in Film Production. Other bylines include Moviefone, The Playlist, Crooked Marquee, Nerdist, and Vulture. 

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Film Credits

Ride movie poster

Ride (2024)

Rated R

Cast

Jake Allyn as Peter

C. Thomas Howell as John Hawkins

Annabeth Gish as Monica Hawkins

Josh Plasse as Noah Hawkins

Scott Reeves as Ross Dickons

Director

Writer

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