Austin Film Festival Review: Buck Alamo
Sonny Carl Davis shines as a fading Austin burnout
By Richard Whittaker,
9:00PM, Sat. Oct. 23, 2021
You've seen Buck Alamo. He's the old guy selling electrified geodes on South Congress, driving a pick-up that's more rust than steel, and has stories about the good old days before everything fell apart. He'll boast about playing Threadgill's a time or two, with the weight of knowing that it was probably a slow Tuesday when UT was out.
Buck Alamo - or, to bestow its full title, Buck Alamo or (A Phantasmagorical Ballad) is a rambling tale that pricks the bubble of the myth of a certain kind of old Austin. Eli Cody (played by Austin acting mainstay Sonny Carl Davis) adopted the name Buck Alamo long enough ago that only his pharmacist knows his real name; but he was born to selfish dysfunction, reminiscing fondly with passersby about being the kind of washed-up minstrel that the city has had a habit of lionizing.
But telling the story is a different measure to living with it, especially for Dee (Lee Eddy, spectacularly fractured and furious), the daughter whose spent years fearing the next time this old drunk washes up on her doorstep. Same goes for her sister, Caroline (Lorelei Linklater), who knows she's the apple that didn't fall all that far from the tree. Now he's trying to be back in their lives, just because he's facing a diagnosis from where he can't grin his way clear. It's just time, and he's wasted so much of that.
Not that he's really interested in making amends. "You made my life so very hard on me," he remonstrates at God when attending the church he's stuck to like a limpet now he's facing his mortality.
Yet writer/director Ben Epstein isn't interested in indulging his self-serving self-mythologizing. The shadows of the fantastical slither past him, like the rattlesnakes that occasionally glide across his cabin floor, or the voice of Death (the grumbling lilt of Bruce Dern) that provides narration and commentary over Buck's fading days.
It's really Davis' nuanced performance that anchors Buck's story in heartbreak. He's the old charmer, but the charm is worn thinner than tulle, ready with an excuse and then happy to bail when someone sees through his act. The veteran actor taps into the same easy-going rambling nature that Ben Dickey tapped into when he played Blaze Foley in tragic musical biopic Blaze, the story of a real-life reprobate who couldn't stop his wilder angels from sabotaging his genius. As Dickey said, "Killing yourself on drugs and alcohol, playing dive bars, sounds kind of romantic. In the living of it, it’s pathetic.”
But unlike Foley, or others whose tune ended too early, Alamo had decades to do better, be better, and his legs are too weak to race the Devil to his life's finish line. Davis catches him as a man who sees himself as old, but still cannot quite accept his arthritic, sunken, faded reality.
Epstein brings a broken lyricism, and a warm naturalism that's illuminated by firepits and beer logo neons, to Buck's reminiscences. Lightly restructured since its world premiere at the 2020 Oldenburg Film Festival, the version of Buck's slide into night gets to the family business quicker, excising some scenes of Buck just being Buck that added a little context, and showed the old rogue at his most charming. This edit is more focused on the damage he has wrought: after all his story of a wasted life, and its inevitable final tragedy is more melancholic than truly mournful. Epstein casts Buck like Abner in "I Hate to See That Evening Sun Go Down" - too old to fix much, to set in his ways to change, and maybe with just enough time to do something right. And, much like Scott Teems did for Hal Holbrook in the 2007 film version of William Gay's story (released as That Evening Sun), he gives Davis a place for a sweeping yet understated performance carved from age and regret.
North American premiere
Mon., Oct. 25, 7pm, State Theatre
Read our interview with star Sonny Carl Davis and director Ben Epstein, "Lonesome Cosmic Cowboy," Oct. 22.
Austin Film Festival, Oct. 21-30. Find all our news, reviews, and interviews at austinchronicle.com/austin-film-festival.
A version of this review ran as part of our coverage of the 2020 Oldenburg Film Festival.