There’s a town in East Texas where the local Nissan dealership gives away a new pickup to whoever can hold on to it the longest. The event starts with 20 contestants, who take their places around the vehicle, keeping one hand on the vehicle at all times until their sanity snaps or their legs give out. The publicity stunt repeated every year for two decades straight, until the 2005 edition took a horrible turn. But before it turned tragic, the “hands on” competition was the stuff of legend — the modern-day equivalent of the desperate Depression-era dance marathons depicted in “They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?” — giving ordinary folks an opportunity to change their lives: All you had to do was outlast everyone else, and the truck was yours.
In 1997, S.R. Bindler made a legendary documentary about the peculiar Texas tradition, a feisty cult favorite called “Hands on a Hard Body,” and Robert Altman was rumored to be developing a movie about it before he died in 2006. Seven years later, a musical version appeared on Broadway. And now, via a long and circuitous path, the contest has found its way back on-screen via a scripted feature, “One of These Days,” from German-born, Austin-based director Bastian Günther, whose tone isn’t at all what you might expect.
Günther’s been living in Texas long enough to do right by both the accents and the underlying personality types he observes, but he’s skeptical of the participants’ enthusiasm from the start, and he approaches the contest as a cautionary tale, not a rowdy comedic exercise. The music (by the Notwist) that underscores things isn’t country but the stuff of true-crime stories, while the widescreen cinematography (by Michael Kotschi) reaches for a kind of melancholy distance, reminiscent of Wim Wenders’ roadside photographs of American ghost towns. If Edward Hopper were alive today, he would approve of the film’s funereal tone.
By contrast, Bindler’s documentary — which predates the reality-TV craze by a few years — celebrated people so colorful they would’ve been right at home in a Christopher Guest movie. To represent them accurately in a scripted feature would get any contemporary director accused of racism or worse, so Günther tones down the inherent eccentricity of his ensemble. The characters still cuss, drawl and pray, but within more respectful bounds. (For the most part, at least. One woman, a devout Christian, spends the whole time reading her Bible, drawing strength from the Lord until heatstroke backfires in a big way.) No doubt, Günther doesn’t want to be seen as condescending or judgmental, and yet, he has chosen to dramatize the “Hands on” competition with the most shocking possible outcome, all but certain to upset anyone who thought they were signing on for something more lighthearted.
The name of the town where the event took place all those years? That would be Longview, which is as good a description as any for Günther’s approach to the subject. Instead of cooking up suspense around who will win, Günther burrows into the question of why anyone would agree to participate in the first place, and what such an phenomenon says about American society as a whole. It’s demeaning, he reasons, if not downright dangerous.
In one scene, a well-liked character collapses and has to be carted away in an ambulance, and while the crowd is thus distracted, someone else who came across as a likely candidate to win registers how risky the activity is to their mental and physical health and simply steps away from the truck and disappears into the night. As one character puts it, “Even if you win this truck, you’re still going to be the idiot who had to stand around a truck because you couldn’t afford to buy one.”
That may be true, but I far prefer the attitude of “Hands on a Hard Body.” The film has clear-cut, intuitive stakes, and not everyone who enlists is a down-on-his-luck desperado, the way Günther makes them out to be. Heck, the documentary is even life-affirming in parts: Nearly all the rivals start out ruthless, planning to psych out the others while trying to avoid a careless slip on their own part. But as the event wears on and delirium sets in, it becomes more of a bonding experience. As in “The Highlander,” only one can win, but the others emerge as friends, not mortal enemies. Some even come back to cheer on the remaining players after being disqualified.
Günther has a different view of things. He spends an inordinate amount of the film focused on the dealership’s marketing director, Joan (Carrie Preston), a chirpy former-cheerleader type who’s constantly multitasking the big event with troubles in her love life. And in a curious move, he seems to single out a favorite among the contestants from the outset, privileging a sensitive blue-collar young man named Kyle (British actor Joe Cole of “Peaky Blinders”) whose backstory the film saves for the end.
During the competition, the participants wears identical uniforms, but Günther introduces Kyle a few days before, in his civilian clothes, as it were, providing a glimpse into a life that doesn’t seem all that bad — an impression borne out by “One of These Days’” unconventional epilogue, which flashes back instead of carrying the narrative forward. Between these bookends, the film assumes an artful blue-and-yellow palette, channeling the sweltering West Texas atmosphere so effectively, you can practically feel the humidity.
The movie fools us, cleverly introducing the idea that the contestants are starting to hallucinate before things start to go awry. That way, we don’t know whether to trust the psychotic breaks when they come, and we can be fully stunned when people start to lose it. The film’s unexpected ending is both effective and unconscionable, factually accurate and virtually impossible to accept, in part because Günther has manipulated us to make his point. He wants to deliver a statement about the American dream, but we’re not obliged to accept his conclusion. Maybe it’s just the movie that’s rigged.