For all its longevity and tradition, the western is a genre that responds well to reinvention. Daniel Barber’s The Keeping Room (2014), for example, is among the handful to be told from the female experience, while Patrick Hughes’ Red Hill (2010) is one of many to transplant the template to modern times and other countries. And while Chinese-born writer/director Chloe Zhao hasn’t attempted to turn the genre entirely on its head, her sophomore feature The Rider does reshape the traditional cowboy narrative in a way that both embraces and challenges western tropes.
[Note: This review contains spoilers]
Ancient tradition and modern capitalism collide in this striking, and strikingly confident, debut feature from Zambian-Welsh filmmaker Rungano Nyoni, who draws on her dual background to craft a tale rich in murky superstition and clear-eyed social commentary. It is set in the small communities around Zambia’s capital Lusaka, whose inhabitants wear modern clothes, listen to Western music and place great faith in old ideas of spirits and witchcraft.
In its telling of a fascinating real-life story about the against-the-odds experiences of a remarkable woman, I, Tonya has much in common with Aaron Sorkin’s Molly’s Game. Both feature thwarted sporting ambition, pushy parents and gender-specific persecution as key narrative themes, and both are fuelled by smart writing, skilled direction and exceptional performances. Technically, both utilise fast cuts, intimate camerawork, an evocative soundtrack and effective voice over, though I, Tonya takes the latter to greater extremes by having characters speak directly to camera at opportune moments.