Robert Mitchum is a washed-up rodeo legend who runs into Wes (Arthur Kennedy of Rancho Notorious, traitor of Bend of the River) and Susan Hayward (Canyon Passage). Wes gets the idea to make quick money by getting Mitchum to train him for the rodeo life, soon becomes a conceited gambler going out with hot chicks and abandoning Susan at home, and Mitchum gets a complex about it, goes back out to prove himself and gets thrashed to death by a bull.
“I got a special callin’ for handling horses like some folks get the call to be a preacher.” Just a couple days later, we saw The Rider, which had the unfortunate side effect of making this movie seem somewhat phony by comparison. It’s overall fine though, if not up to the very high standards of Ray’s next few pictures. Arthur Hunnicutt (The Big Sky) is a highlight as a cripped ex-bullrider with a teenage daughter named Rusty… never seen the bad girl who tries to steal Wes (Eleanor Todd) or the bitter widow (Lorna Thayer) before.
Possibly even more of a casual hangout movie than The Other Side, refusing any backstory or narrative momentum. And as with that one, I never have any idea if what we’re seeing is pure documentary, or what has been invented for the film. These aren’t complaints! Handheld cameras shoved right into actors’ faces in low lighting while nothing much happens isn’t usually my aesthetic preference, but I do love Minervini’s work so far.
Sara lives and works on a goat farm with her large, homeschooling family (there are “bad influences” in the public schools), sells at farmers’ markets and directly to neighboring families, like the rodeo down the street, where Sara makes smalltalk with young Colby. It’s so low-key that you wouldn’t think there’s a budding relationship there, but for a couple marriage conversations she has at home (and is that an old-fashioned wedding dress she’s wearing in the final shot?). More than half of the movie is rodeo and praying. Substituting for the armed, drunken racist horror that was the last half-hour of The Other Side: a short scene, unexplained, of a cross burning in a field at night.
Minervini is particularly successful at suggesting the parallels between Colby and Sara. A skinny, sweet-natured cowboy who’s all sinew but no muscle, he needs focus and determination to master his rodeo skills and avoid injury. A born nurturer with a special feeling for animals, she holds sacred beliefs yet at the same time is needled by doubts and fears that she’s unable to articulate, which her mother assures her are an inevitable part of the battle for inner peace … And while it isn’t quite a performance in the standard sense, it’s difficult to imagine the film working to the extent it does without a figure of such emotional transparency and innate spirituality as Sara Carlson at its center.
EDIT: an essential interview with Minervini at Filmmaker.