Greetings again from the darkness. Thanks to the onslaught of ‘Reality TV’ over the last decade, we seem to have lost empathy for those whose lot in life has driven them to submit to acts of desperation in hopes of finding a way forward. Writer-director Bastian Gunther has used the real-life east Texas events featured in the 1997 documentary, HANDS ON A HARD BODY, to create a drama depicting the fallout from such extremes.
Kyle (Joe Cole, “Peaky Blinders”) is a down-on-his-luck local guy with a wife and young daughter. Life is hard and he’s desperate to improve their way of life. However, he’s such an honest and good person that our impression is that he’s one of those who just gets continually kicked while down. When Joan (Carrie Preston, “True Blood”), in her role as Public Relations Director for Boudreaux car dealership, announces a contest to win a new pickup truck, Kyle sees his chance to make things better for his family.
If you have read about the dance marathons held in the 1920’s and 1930’s, or seen Sydney Pollack’s film, THEY SHOOT HORSES, DON’T THEY? (1969), then this “last person standing” concept will be familiar. A lottery is held to select twenty people who will compete for the vehicle in a test of endurance: they must keep one hand on the truck at all times, taking only short breaks with no chance for sleep. The expectation is that this could last 100 hours, with sleep deprivation and psychological willpower certainly in play. It’s a diverse group of twenty, and mind games are afoot, especially by one of the participants, Kevin (Jesse C Boyd) … one who no one recognizes.
Since watching people stand around touching a truck lacks cinematic drama, director Gunther infuses some of Joan’s less-than-stellar personal life, while also offering tidbits on some of the participants. Much of the focus is on Kyle, even as exhaustion, hallucinations, and health issues begin to creep in. The opening segment provides us with a Google Earth-type lay of the land in this rural community, and we quickly understand the stress of poverty – a stress that is eating away at Kyle.
A surprising plot twist with one of the participants elevates the tension, but it’s not until the final act where Gunther follows an unconventional structure that is downright confounding. We believe our story will end when the truck is awarded to the last one standing, but that’s not what happens. It’s an unusual story structure and one that’s challenging to deal with as a viewer. The characters feel real, and having been inspired by true events, the “hands on” competition is believable and uncomfortable to watch. This is a different kind of storytelling as it turns the familiar rural community trope sideways and shakes it up.
IN THEATERS, ON DIGITAL AND ON DEMAND APRIL 14, 2023
Isolating a group of people and introducing a problem is an age old vehicle in literature and film. There are maybe hundreds. In film, I think of Lifeboat, The Thing Apollo 13, the Alamo, Titanic and many others. It often “works”.
Don’t forget “Gilligan’s Island”