Producers: Martin Heisler and Peter Veverka   Director: Bastian Günther   Screenplay: Bastian Günther   Cast: Carrie Preston, Joe Cole, Callie Hernandez, Jesse C. Boyd, Evan Henderson, Lynne Ashe, Lucy Faust, Sam Malone, Carl Palmer, Cory Scott Allen, Donna Duplantier, Clyde R. Jones, Susan McPhail, Jared Bankens, Alex Biglane, Amy Le, Lane Bronson, Shawn Sanz, Cullen Moss, Gail Cronauer, Douglas M. Griffin, David Welch, Chris Gann and Bill Callahan   Distributor: Gravitas Ventures

Grade: C-

If you’ve ever wondered about the mixture of tedium and exhaustion one must experience when participating in an endurance contest like the one depicted in S.R. Bindler’s fine 1997 documentary “Hands on a Hardbody”—in which entrants struggled to be the last person standing (while keeping a hand on a new truck) in order to win the vehicle—Bastian Günther’s film will give you a taste.  Not just because the picture portrays its fictional contestants as desperate (as also is the woman charged with putting the show on), but because it’s so gruelingly dull itself: it’s as though Günther and his collaborators (production designer Angela Gail Schroeder, cinematographer Michael Kotschi and editor Anne Fabini) want to make viewers pine for release as much as the characters do. 

The result is “Hands on a Hardbody” shot through with the bleakness of “They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?” but without that film’s piercing emotional urgency; like the contestants, it stands still while Sydney Pollack’s film, like its dancers, had to keep moving.  (In the initial half-hour, so many sequences, especially those shot from inside cars and trucks, are so distended that they threaten to bring things to a complete halt.)

As “One of These Days” depicts it, the contest, sponsored by a car dealership in an unnamed town (Bindler’s documentary was set in Longview, Texas; the movie was shot in Louisiana) as a promotional stunt, is organized as an annual event by Joan (Carrie Preston, doing her best to express the character’s repressed misery), who must put on a brave face despite having to cope with personal issues—her daughter has left for college in Florida, her mother Martha (Gail Cronauer) is suffering from dementia, and her lover Chis (Cullen Moss) has just broken up with her.  When she’s alone she’s dejected, but she must perk up and act jovial and ebullient to attract people to come watch the show (and maybe buy a car) while prodding the local TV station for coverage and urging the participants to keep their chins up.

The contestants are a motley lot, chosen at random from applications they submit at drop boxes.  Most aren’t characterized at any great depth; Günther is content to sketch them in a cursory fashion. But the large supporting cast manage to make do with relatively little.  So we have the likes of Peter (Cory Scott Allen), who always wears ear-buds and, irritatingly, constantly thumps on the trunk in time with his music; the goofy duo of Randy (Jared Bankens) and Pack (Alex Biglane), zonked-out twenty-somethings so dense they don’t even realize they can’t both win; and Derek (Evan Henderson), an intense ex-military man—among many others.  Despite the one-note quality of the depictions, some do stand out—like Ruthie (Lynne Ashe), the born-again Christian who takes to reading the Bible aloud, or Walter (Carl Palmer), the grumpy old man who wears a catheter so he won’t even need to take bathroom breaks. 

The focus, however, is on Kyle (Joe Cole, quietly intense), the clean-cut, friendly fellow who mans the take-out order window at a local fast-food place and, with wife Maria (Callie Hernandez) and a toddler to support, needs the truck to replace the car that’s just broken down.  He soldiers on despite the heat, the physical demands, and the nasty remarks of Kevin (Jesse C. Boyd), a sneering out-of-towner who needles him about his inadequacies as a man and a husband.  It’s Kyle whose unravelling the film follows over the course of days, though others, including Derek, sad-faced Peggy (Lucy Faust), and even Ruthie abandon their places beside the truck in the course of the long contest.

There are instances when the movie rouses itself into bursts of action, as when Peter is forcefully ejected, or Randy and Pack get into a brawl, or Walter collapses—and most importantly when Kyle becomes so furious over Kevin’s snide remarks that he physically attacks him.  Or does he?  For a moment it appears that the entire episode might simply be a nightmare, although an alternative explanation is quickly provided (though not followed up).

In the end it’s Kyle’s deterioration that becomes, in a very melodramatic fashion, the core of the film, leading even Joan to put an end to the contest, the pet project to which she’s devoted everything.  In its last half hour the script detours into a long coda, part disruption, part flashback and part hallucination, that some will find confounding.  By the time the truck takes center-stage, proving a surprisingly talkative sort (the voice provided by one Bill Callahan), the viewer might find his jaw involuntarily dropping, especially since the blinking of its headlights (the film’s only attempt at a special effect, save for the Google map-style track-and-pause scenes Kotschi employs to illustrate the town’s drab atmosphere) comes across as absurd rather than clever.  HAL 9000 this is not, even if the truck’s remarks are intended to make us wonder whether Kyle’s motives are quite as pure as they seem.

“One of These Days” obviously wants to say something profound about the psychological rot in today’s small-town, economically depressed America.  But its turgidity, penchant for excess and lack of depth undermine the effort.