‘Ride’ Review: A Texas Rodeo Family Turns to Crime to Fund a Young Girl’s Cancer Treatment

If you’re going to set your movie somewhere in the intersection of two worlds fraught with danger — say, bull-riding competitions and hardcore crime —  it’s always a good idea to cast actors who look and sound comfortable, and credible, in both places. There are quite a few things to admire in “Ride,” director Jake Allyn’s suspenseful drama about a rodeo family driven to extremes while trying to pay their young daughter’s medical bills. But the first thing that sticks out is how much verisimilitude lead players C. Thomas Howell and Forrie J. Smith bring to the table. If you look at their backgrounds, that shouldn’t come as a surprise.

Howell may still be best remembered by fans for his roles in Francis Ford Coppola’s “The Outsiders” — “Look! It’s Ponyboy!” and John Milius’ “Red Dawn.” But in addition to the scads of other movie and TV credits on his resume, including more than a few where he played a total badass, he also has an impressive background in real-life riding and roping that stretches back to before his screen debut. Just as important, he’s 57 now, an age where he can easily project almost as much craggy gravitas — almost — as Smith, who spent decades wrangling on the rodeo circuit before his detour into film and television brought him to “Yellowstone,” a series that has been known to focus on highly illegal activities on the frontier.

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Both actors give career-highlight performances in “Ride.” Allyn’s film is well-crafted enough to engross even people who don’t know the difference between barrelmen and bulldoggers, in large part because Howell and Smith are surrounded by an exceptionally well-cast ensemble that include Annabeth Gish, Scott Reeves, Patrick Murney — and Allyn himself.

The filmmaker plays Peter Hawkins, the black sheep of a Texas rodeo clan who’s newly released from prison after serving time for a crime that’s only gradually revealed. He’s distressingly eager to score drugs from Tyler (Murney), his long-time dealer, so he can return to bull-riding. Since he’s strapped for cash — he’s an ex-con, remember? — he even promises to repay Tyler with his rodeo winnings. As it turns out, Peter scores a big payday for his first time back in the chute. But, of course, his problems don’t end there.

While doing time, Peter has been kept in the dark about the condition of his young sister, Virginia (Zia Carlock), who’s struggling with cancer. Neither his father, John (Howell), a rancher and retired rodeo star, nor his mother, Monica (Gish), who just happens to be the local sheriff, ever visited him in prison — and not entirely because they’ve been attending to their ailing daughter. Peter’s grizzled grandfather, Al (Smith), did drop by sporadically, likely as not because the old rodeo champ now is a minster catering to substance abusers. But it comes as a bolt from the blue for Peter when he learns Virginia requires a massively expensive, experimental treatment — one that isn’t covered by his estranged parents’ insurance policies.

Hoping to help Virginia — and get back in the good graces of everyone else in his family, including his younger, non-rodeoing brother Noah (co-scripter John Plasse) — Peter ropes his father into a scheme to seize stacks of cash hidden in Tyler’s squalid home. Nothing good comes of this.

Well, an amendment: The harrowingly sustained sequence depicting the dire complications that arise when Tyler returns home unexpectedly, and expresses his displeasure nonverbally, isn’t just good — it’s masterful. Maybe it would be overstating the case to call it Hitchcockian, but not by all that much.

Allyn continues to deftly ratchet up the tension, as John and Peter scramble to cover their tracks, even as Monica investigates the aftermath of the ill-fated robbery with a little help from her deputy, Ross Dickons (Reeves). As “Ride” proceeds, there’s a satisfying abundance of revealing character touches — whenever Gish pulls her hair back before donning Monica’s sheriff hat, you know this woman means business — along with a vividly persuasive evocation of small-town life in and out of the rodeo arena. The bull-riding scenes are aptly gritty, dusty and sometimes scarily convincing. But the interactions among the main characters — and, for that matter, the bit players, including those who will never forgive Peter for his sins — ring every bit as true.

Many viewers — too many, probably — will experience discomforting shocks of recognition as Allyn focuses on ways our country’s flawed healthcare system can humiliate and bankrupt families. (It’s almost too painful to watch as Howell’s John frantically tries to make some kind of down payment at a cancer clinic.) On one hand, there’s something ineffably moving about the way Smith’s Al inspires others with blunt-spoken accounts of his own addictions, and encouraging words about the possibility of redemption. “Ride” is not, strictly speaking, a faith-based movie. Ultimately, however, it comes across as more honest and affecting than loads of other films bearing that label.

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