'One of These Days': Film Review | SXSW 2020

Michael Kotsch
A peculiar but largely successful riff on the real story.

Bastian Gunther's feature is inspired by the real contest depicted in 1997's 'Hands on a Hard Body.'

[Note: In the wake of SXSW's cancellation this year, The Hollywood Reporter is reviewing select fest entries that elected to screen digitally for critics.]

S.R. Bindler's 1997 documentary Hands on a Hard Body — about a Texas endurance contest in which the last contestant awake with a hand touching a new truck would win it — was an unexpected sensation, attracting attention long before today's doc boom and inspiring spinoffs including a Broadway musical. In the years before his death, Robert Altman intended to adapt the ensemble-ready story, but it never happened. Now comes One of These Days, in which Bastian Gunther, a German director who has worked for years in Texas, incorporates a more recent episode into the scenario, focusing on the strain endured by one contestant in particular. Positioned somewhere between character study and a broader dramatization of desperation in America's working class, the film is more engrossing than its stasis-requiring premise suggests.

Joe Cole plays Kyle, a fast-food worker in an unnamed town somewhere near the Texas/Louisiana border. (The real contest took place in Longview, Texas.) Scraping by with his wife (Callie Hernandez) and infant son, Kyle can't afford to repair the old car he drives to work. He's lucky to be picked for one of 20 spots in the Hands On contest, even if he's less effusive about the opportunity than the event's organizer Joan (Carrie Preston), who works for the auto dealership that holds this promotion every year.

Joan seems to have a good job at the dealership, but Gunther's script reveals her to be suffering as much insecurity as the poorest participants in this contest: A middle-aged single mother whose child has gone far away to college, she tries unsuccessfully to appear nonchalant when the man she's seeing breaks up with her; another date seemingly spots her neediness from far away. Joan appears to use Hands On as a substitute for other kinds of human connection, putting up an enthusiastic front that wears some people out.

The film is light on some details here — aside from the guy who listens to music and annoyingly slaps the truck in time with it, why is nobody fighting boredom with a smartphone? Is that against the rules? But it's crystal clear on the basics: Twenty people will stand under a tent in a parking lot, keeping at least one hand on the truck at all times. Five-minute restroom break every hour; 15 minutes every six hours; no sleeping, leaning or sitting down in between.

The competitors aren't as Texas-nice a group as you'd expect. While some keep to themselves, others inflict their time-killing strategies on their neighbors (that music fan; a woman reading Bible verses aloud). Still others are openly hostile: Two low-IQ buddies tease everyone around them; a military vet (Evan Henderson) hisses threats; the unusually confident Kevin (Jesse C. Boyd) brags about his inevitable victory and bullies those around him, especially Kyle.

These abrasive characters help the pic ensure that viewers sympathize with those enduring the challenge onscreen. As sleep-deprived men and women remain standing past the 24-hour mark, some succumb to humidity and heat, while others seem struck with a lightning-bolt realization that they'll never outlast the others. Some slink off while no one is looking. After day two, several seem primed for mental breakdowns. It's very hard to predict who might last the longest, even before a gobsmacking surprise the script has in store.

The film doesn't end with that victory, though; instead, it flashes back to the days before the event, exploring some of the economic and emotional factors that would lead a person to participate in such a pointless stunt. Given the length of this section after the somewhat grueling narrative preceding it, the structural strategy is risky. But despite giving the movie a lopsided feeling, it pays off emotionally, waiting until we're ready to accept ingredients like a loopy cameo from indie songwriter Bill Callahan. The man behind Smog gives voice to the dreams wrapped up in the prospect of winning something you couldn't hope to buy. Giving a truck away for free represents a relatively small advertising investment for Joan's boss; for the contestants, the cost can be very high.

Production company: Flare Film
Cast: Carrie Preston, Joe Cole, Callie Hernandez, Jesse C. Boyd, Evan Henderson, Bill Callahan
Director-screenwriter: Bastian Gunther
Producers: Martin Heisler, Peter Veverka

Executive producer: Jeanine Rohn
Director of photography: Michael Kotschi
Production designer: Angela Gail Schroeder
Costume designer: Chelsea DeScenna
Editor: Anne Fabini
Composer: The Notwist
Casting director: Jennifer Smith
Venue: SXSW Film Festival (Narrative Spotlight)
Sales: CAA

120 minutes