A battle of wills: a gruelling contest of endurance and sheer determination whose lone victor will finish physically and mentally exhausted, having outlasted all challengers. Defeated rivals will literally stumble away, collapsing into chairs or leaving in a dazed state, some seemingly unaware of where or even who they are.
The victor will be too tired to punch the air, high-five their support team or unveil a meme-spawning new victory pose through which they might launch sponsorship deals and novelty pop records. Instead all they will want to do is kiss their husband or wife then go home and sleep as long as their body will let them.
This is Hands on a Hardbody, a feature-length documentary directed by S.R Binler, originally released in 1997 and which follows the 1995 Texas competition of the same name, the object of which is deceptively simple: keep one of your hands palm down on a brand new pick-up truck for the longest amount of time and you get to walk away with the truck itself as your prize. What complicates this seemingly straight-forward goal is the other 21 people also standing around the truck, each of whom is just as determined to win as you are.
At first, everyone is confident that they will win. Some even stroke the truck tenderly, polishing a shine into it’s already gleaming chassis, as though preparing it for the moment they drive home with it. You can see each competitor turning over in their head what they’re going to do with the truck once they’ve won and what difference it will make to their life. Everyone, that is, except Benny (the bookies favourite thanks to his winning the competition two years earlier), who alone knows just how far this apparently simple contest will push each and every person standing around the truck. “Only person who I think could possibly beat me is someone who’s just come out of the marine core” Benny insists in one of the many interviews that he and the participants filmed before the contest had started. These interviews, as well as the others recorded throughout the 80 gruelling hours of the competition, paint a vivid and highly personal picture of each contestant and their background, as well as their hopes for the contest. As the competition proceeds and these people inevitably pull out one-by-one, it is these interviews, capturing each person’s assuredness that they alone will win, which allow us to witness, in a very natural way, people confronted by their absolute limits.
All of this could come across as overblown and far-fetched to you reading this, I mean, it’s just a truck after all. But the film does a very good job of establishing exactly what the stakes are for each of the participants and we soon realise that this isn’t just a truck. To a struggling single parent who intends to sell the truck in order to keep up with loan repayments, it’s a lifeline. Whereas for Benny, what appears to be at stake is far more existential, as he draws parallels, with compelling gravitas, between the hunting and killing of wild animals and winning the competition. All of this is handled carefully by the filmmakers, who seem to be well aware of the inherent drama (and equally, the comedy) which arises as the competition progresses.
In terms of production values the film is notably low-key, essentially being the product of a group of filmmakers who saw the dramatic potential of the hardbody contest and sought to document it on a shoestring budget. But in my opinion, it is all the better for this. For the most part, the filmmakers simply capture the many frustrations and conflicts that naturally arise, as the competition grinds on towards its inevitable finale. Along the way are some fairly tripped out segments where, for instance, the camera might zero in on a motion-blurred, spinning hub cap whilst a cacophonic montage of interview sound bites play out. Scenes like this feel distinctly of their time, but nevertheless do a great job of representing the disorientation and confusion of the participants as the contest draws out into its 70th hour and beyond.
Despite the restoration of footage and digital remaster for this 2013 re-release, this is still a low-budget 90’s film and it very much looks that way. This is of little concern, however, as the subject matter is so captivating and the approach so complimentary; the film transcends its technical shortcomings and becomes, as other reviewers have often described it, timeless.
The Hands on a Hardbody documentary is available now on DVD and digital download/stream
words Tom Smalley