This psychological drama from German director Bastian Günther is based on a real-life event. A 1997 documentary by SR Bindler called Hands on a Hardbody was about the annual sleep-deprivation endurance contest run by an East Texas auto dealership, where 24 people compete to win a brand-new Nissan Hardbody pickup truck by keeping at least one hand on it for the longest continuous time. They are allowed brief hourly breaks but cannot sleep, or lean their weight against the vehicle, and if they take their hands off it for any reason, they’re out.
US festival audiences found something sympathetic and humorous about these stoic hopefuls and there was even a stage musical version with a happy ending. Robert Altman was apparently developing a feature version just before he died, though reportedly envisioning something darker, like They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? Günther’s film is certainly no Broadway musical though he has created an ingenious, if far-fetched narrative twist, a contrivance whose complications he can’t quite absorb into the script. But this is audaciously structured with a sombre coda sequence placed after the end of the contest.
Günther invents two key characters: Carrie Preston plays Joan, who runs the dealership PR and is a lonely divorcee on the online dating circuit. British actor Joe Cole plays Kyle, a competitor who is an unemployed local guy with a wife and baby daughter; he is desperate for cash and taking this contest far too seriously. Günther lets us savour the strangeness of this spectacle: a circle of people who look as if they are worshipping a sacred object, a laying-on-of-hands ritual in the church of capitalism or a secular seance to call up the spirit of the American dream. They also look like a group of people under arrest, keeping their hands on the car where the cops can see them. As people faint or stagger away, Kyle faces-off with an obnoxious guy playing nasty mind-games that are even creepier than we suspect; after four or five days without sleep, Kyle fears (with good reason) that he is losing his sanity and enters a dangerous new mental state.
This is a watchable film, but one that somehow doesn’t allow you much access to the competitors’ minds. As they become more and more catatonic, the film does too. Günther gives Kyle dreams or hallucinatory reveries, but nothing so lenient as an illustrative flashback, except for the one that closes the film after it is all too late. We know from the film’s antecedents that bleakness is not the only way of telling this tale, nor is it necessarily the most truthful one. Yet Günther gives us his own version with conviction.