Hands of Fate: Gunther Paints Compelling Portrait of Pride and Poverty
German born director Bastian Günther returns to the other side of his dual citizenship in Texas with his fourth feature One of These Days. Like his 2013 title Houston, Gunther focuses on desperate people in desperate times with a reenactment of an annual “Hands on a Hardbody” competition in a small Texas town. A fine cast of noted character actors and various up-and-comers assists the title’s unfussy descent into an inevitable tragedy in an agonizing slow burn.
Joan (Carrie Preston) is in charge of organizing an annual competition at her car dealership where local contestants are selected at random and allowed the chance to win a new hardbody pick-up truck if they are the last one standing with one hand on the car. Breaks are allowed but contestants cannot sleep, and the public is invited to participate by watching the spectacle and cheer for their favorites. The contestants themselves are from all sorts of backgrounds, though most of them would benefit significantly from winning the truck. But as the hours and days move on, vehemence and violence arrive with increasing desperation.
Gunther’s scenario and locale have all the makings of a neo-Western, conjuring the memories of B-movie titles like A Small Town in Texas (1976) or something like Terror in a Texas Town (1958). But there’s no such lavish melodrama in this achingly intimate portrait of poverty defined citizens whose desires to win a demeaning contest are much deeper than obtaining the privilege of obtaining a free status symbol. Like many troubling scenarios about the strange conditions humans concoct for gladiatorial-like entertainment value despite the trauma it causes participants, Gunther’s narrative is based in reality and culled from the 1997 documentary from Longview, Texas, Hands on a Hardbody: The Documentary from S.R. Bindler. But if anything, what Gunther’s depiction of ambivalent inhumanity really channels is the 1969 classic They Shoot Horses, Don’t They, the grueling Depression era dance marathon film directed by Sydney Pollack and starring Jane Fonda. Director Rose Troche’s 2001 title The Safety of Objects also depicts this Hardbody contest and the swift decline of civilized behavior in such tasteless forms of economically designed cruelty.
The focal points of the narrative include Joe Cole, whose lead role in Jean-Stephane Sauvaire’s 2017 title A Prayer Before Dawn seems to indicate a penchant for grueling, emotionally taxing characterizations. He’s the ‘nice guys finish last’ type here, his desperation to win the truck as a means to provide for his family presented as his final salvation from debt. The other character allotted a bit more depth and interiority is Carrie Preston’s Joan, a fading Southern Belle cum car dealer employee who’s suffering from dual losses. Just as her daughter packs up for college an affair with a co-worker abruptly ends when he finds a woman desiring to marry him.
Preoccupied with care for her mother, a woman beginning to show signs of dementia, Joan distracts herself with online dating, an awkward instance of which provides One of These Days with the words we tell ourselves to excuse the continued reality of such demeaning human entertainment—they are, after all, participating of their own free will. But it’s this stance which blatantly ignores the circumstances of why or what’s wrong with causing significant physical and mental trauma to people. A late-staged twist, which certainly comes as a surprise considering Gunther’s otherwise demure narrative parameters, is the catalyst for an eventual tragedy—and most interestingly of all, does not culminate with the finale after this climax, but instead a rumination forcing the audience to let what’s happened really seep into their bones.
Reviewed on February 22nd at the Berlin International Film Festival – Panorama programme. 120 Mins.