Hands on a Hardbody - B+
Viewed February 6, 1999 at the Village East

Finally making its way into Manhattan comes S.R. Bindler's documentary about a yearly contest in Longview, Texas in which contestants place a hand upon a brand-new pickup truck and keep it there until only one is left standing. Bindler's film documents the 1994 contest.

What emerges despite some very basic filmmaking is a sociological document of small-town America that treats its often eccentric "cast" with minimal condescension. (There's a little, but Bindler's obvious affection for his subjects makes a far greater impression.) Among the contestants we get to know are Benny, a former champion who comes across as a Zen cowboy and Norma, a religiously devout woman, who register as the most memorable of the 24 people who start the contest. And Bindler doesn't just document the contest -- on occasion, the contestants opine on such ideas as the importance of a truck in rural America. ("A truck can make money. A car can't.") And the reasons why these 24 would do something this nutty makes for a roundabout portrait of the poverty endemic in the rural U.S.

As intriguing as these sidebars are, the film wisely concentrates on the contest itself, which becomes, as Benny so puts it, "a human drama thing." As the hours pile on, the contestants drop off, and we're witness to the various ways the agony of defeat (and the feet) manifests itself. In the end there can be only one, and how the contest is resolved is further proof that if God exists, He's a sucker for cheap irony.