Horses you can shoot, trucks not so much: One of These Days (2020)

The premise of One of These Days couldn’t be more American if it tried: once a year, the local car dealership organises Hands-On. This is an endurance contest based on one simple rule: participants must at all times – except for short, infrequent breaks – keep their hands on the pickup truck they wish to win. Meanwhile, spectators drink beers, eat hot dogs and watch the spectacle (if you wish to call it that), which ends up looking like a gruelling, torturous slog for the contestants and boring for the people watching. Who’d put themselves through several full days of this, standing outside, hands on a pickup? And why? Or has the gameshow aspect seeped into the minds of participants trying to become marginally less poor to such an extent that they actually think they’re doing this for fun as much as for profit?

Bastian Günther’s film, as is often the case with critiques of modern-day America made by Europeans, has a certain heavy-handed flatness, depicting an idea (or perhaps a cliché) of America rather than a more authentic, lived-in representation. It’s not subtle in its critique of America, the ways it fails its most vulnerable, and how its culture shapes itself around this failure – though, seeing how One of These Days is based on something that actually happened in 2005, during such a competition, the film’s heavy-handedness may be quite apt. Günther isn’t interested in psychological depth, and most of the characters remain rough sketches: this is the racist participant, this is the religious one, this one gets on everyone’s nerves with his nervous tics. The contestant we get to know more than the others is Kyle (played by the British actor Joe Cole): he has a wife and a baby, and the film largely takes his perspective, but while Cole’s performance is solid, Kyle remains a type rather than becoming much of a three-dimensional character. If anything, it is Joan (Carrie Preston), who works for the car dealership, that is given most depth and development. She organises the contest, and it doesn’t take long for the audience to see the desperation, the effort put into deluding herself, that Joan puts into promoting her brainchild Hands-On.

It’s become something of a running gag between me and my wife: the first couple of times we saw the trailer for One of These Days I commented on how the film looked like a modern version of Sydney Pollack’s 1969 classic They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?, each time as if I was making the point for the first time. Repetitiveness aside, I stand by my point: thematically, if not in terms of the filmmaking, One of These Days shares more than one gene with Pollack’s fittingly depressing film about the dance marathons of the Great Depression. Both films are about the ways in which American poverty and the fight to escape from it are shaped by a grossly capitalist society into entertainments that pit poor against poor. You don’t need the obvious metaphor of a YA dystopia like The Hunger Games to make the point: in the Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave, the pursuit of happiness is a competition, and there can only be one winner. As Joan keeps repeating, in the hope that someone, anyone will buy it: it’s a blast. The American Dream always is, for otherwise it wouldn’t be a dream, right?

The problem with One of These Days‘ echoes of They Shoot Horses is not just that the latter is justly considered a classic. Pollock’s film is more nuanced, richer and sharper, but Günther’s movie could still have been a worthwhile updating. Sadly, there are a handful of decisions by the director (who also wrote the film) that work against this. The first of these is that Joan is the character who comes to life, and while Preston’s performance is probably the strongest aspect of the movie (she’s singled out in every single review I’ve seen, and rightly so), this works against One of These Days to some extent. Joan is unhappy in her own way, but she’s not suffering from the same socioeconomic pressures that the contestants are affected by. This could still be used for thematic purposes, but as Joan comes to life more than everyone else, including Kyle, she runs away with a film that doesn’t seem to understand what it’s doing by making her the main, or at least the most complex, character. Günther’s script isn’t smart or sharp enough to make this work in its favour, so One of These Days is already off-balance due to Joan’s role and Preston’s performance.

More than this, however, One of These Days suffers from an extended coda that is baffling in how badly it works. The film’s plot – the increasingly gruelling Hands-On competition – culminates in a tragic escalation, which is then followed by an astonishingly long flashback to Kyle’s life before Hands-On. We see him with his wife and son, we get something of a sense of what made him want to compete and just how much he wanted this – but at the same time, everything gleaned from the coda was already implicit in the scenes we’d watched earlier. The epilogue makes some things more obvious, but it’s not as if One of These Days had been vague about its themes. We may see more of Kyle’s relationships with those closest to him, but he still doesn’t really get much more of an interior life. The coda could have served as a reminder of what the crass, capitalist gamification of poverty destroys – but we do not need to be reminded of this for twenty minutes to get a point that was already clear. Because of its sheer length, the epilogue seems to prompt the audience to try and reinterpret what is shown, to inject nuances of meaning, but this doesn’t reveal anything particularly interesting either. Our view of Kyle or of the situation he’s in doesn’t change, it doesn’t develop. There is one frankly puzzling scene in the sequence during which the film seems to become something stranger, more surreal, but in isolation it serves as a distraction or a red herring more than anything else. Is it meant symbolically? Is it a dream, or an indication of underlying mental illness to contextualise Kyle’s choices and actions? These questions are raised, but just raising them doesn’t really add anything to a film that is otherwise blatantly obvious in its themes, and otherwise blurs what seemed clear before. The epilogue remains much too muddled for such ambiguity to have an effect other than prompting a tired “… huh?”

None of these different aspects and elements of the film would necessarily be bad in isolation, but Günther doesn’t manage to make them work in concert with each other. One of These Days is strongest where it is simplest, and it may have worked best stripped of everything that’s there to make it richer and more complex, because these things fail at such a purpose and end up as a distraction. A different writer-director might have pulled it off, but as it is the film remains halfway between a leaner, tighter, sharper version of the story and a richer, stranger one. It is a shame for the strong premise, and especially for Preston’s performance, that we didn’t get either of these alternative versions of One of These Days. As it is, when I left the cinema I found myself thinking that I should have taken my hands off this particular truck much earlier and walked away – because if you don’t win, what’s the point?

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