By Calum Marsh
By Michelle Orange
By Michael Atkinson
By Simon Abrams
By Zachary Wigon
By Aaron Hillis
By Casey Burchby
By Stephanie Zacharek
Twenty-three hopefuls gather outside a Nissan dealership in Longview, Texas, place their hands on a shiny new pickup, and try to keep them there as long as they can. The last person left standing drives home with the truck. (The runner-up staggers away with $250.) Scrappy, likable, and immensely absorbing, S.R. Bindler's chronicle of the "Hands on a Hard Body" contest (typically a four-to-five-day marathon) exploits the towering absurdity and unlikely intensity of its subject matter, without ever succumbing to yokel-Americana condescension.
The annual contest is, fundamentally, a surreally sadistic publicity stunt, a point certainly not lost on Bindler. But, as one of the participants stresses, it's also "a human drama thing." The 1995 competition filmed by Bindler featured an ex-marine, a rabidly devout Christian woman, a bubbly twentysomething, and a middle-aged farmer. The by-default star of the film, though, is ruminative former champion Benny, who eloquently describes the bittersweet thrill of seeing a fellow competitor go down ("I'd compare it to the first time you kill a really big animal") and remarks on the event's allegorical quality. "It's like a movie that I once saw. It's called Highlander."
The contestants start to lose it by the second day swollen limbs, hallucinatory episodes, uncontrollable laughter (as one of the religious woman's supporters notes, "The joy of the Lord started manifesting itself in her"). Bindler is an astute observer, as vigilant as his visibly minuscule budget allows. Offering close-ups of stricken, sleep-deprived faces, he watches as mind-numbing boredom accelerates into sanity-threatening torture and conveys a sense of the subtle mindfucking at work. Gripping and cathartic, the culminating face-off packs a punch most big-budget blowouts would be hard-pressed to match.
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