FILMSCENE | OPINION: Low-budget ‘Buck Alamo’ is a worthy gem

Sonny Carl David in Benjamin Epsteins “Buck Alamo or a Phantasmagorical Ballad.”
Sonny Carl David in Benjamin Epsteins “Buck Alamo or a Phantasmagorical Ballad.”

Every once in a blue moon, I find myself stumbling blindly across a movie that's somehow flying under the radar. Usually, they're low-budget films that haven't found their audience yet. These are the kind of movies that hardly anyone talks about -- no million-dollar ad campaigns, and you won't find them in a theater near you. But more often than not, these hidden gems that I trip over exceed my expectations and quickly become favorites. Last month, I discovered one of these diamonds in the rough by the name of "Buck Alamo or (A Phantasmagorical Ballad)."

"Based on three chords ... and the truth," reads the title card before we are introduced to the disembodied voice of Death, played by the impeccable Bruce Dern. In a gruff and dusty voice, he tells the audience, "Me, I'm the inevitable. I can be seen in many forms. I'm called many names. My name is Death, and this ballad is about my duel with a man I'll never forget."

That man is Buck Alamo, played by longtime character actor Sonny Carl Davis. Buck is an aging country musician -- or rather, a would-be country musician. He describes his career as being a "washed-up, never-was."

And Buck isn't just aging; he is aged, well beyond his expiration date. The arthritis in his hands makes it impossible to play the guitar anymore; he hobbles around due to a pinched nerve in his back, and his feet swell to the point where he's constantly rubbing ointments on them. He spends his days sitting on the streets of Austin, Texas, selling geodes to passersby. Buck is the kind of guy who repeatedly claims he's got something in the works, that his next big thing is in the pipeline. He's not fooling anyone, except maybe himself. Years of alcohol and drug abuse have led to Buck being a general screw-up in his professional and family life.

Buck's hustling lifestyle gets turned upside down one afternoon when he receives bad news from his doctor. His body is failing him, and he's nearing the end of the road. Thus, the epic battle with Death begins as Buck tries to get his affairs in order, makes amends with his estranged daughters, and attempts to hold on long enough to get on stage and play one last show. He embarks on this redemption arc while experiencing existential crises and fever dreams, witnessing Death inching closer in his rearview mirror.

Sonny Carl Davis gives a performance of a lifetime as Buck Alamo. I'm most familiar with Davis' early work in the late '70s and early '80s where he worked with Texan director Eagle Pennell on films like "The Whole Shootin' Match" and "Last Night at the Alamo." In fact, the character of Buck Alamo resembles Davis' characters in Pennell's movies -- a sad man with big ideas and unrealized dreams. He's had a long career, starring in nearly 90 movies, including smaller parts in films ranging from big blockbusters like "Thelma & Louise" to more schlocky cult films like "Evil Bong."

Davis has aged a few decades from those early leading roles in Pennell's movies. In "Buck Alamo," we can see the wrinkles in his face, each one carrying the hardships and tribulations of his character. He looks like he has lived two lifetimes. Davis also has this uncanny ability to contort his face to deliver a wide range of emotions. With a smile that stretches from ear to ear, he can appear as a happily stoned singer entertaining a crowd, or that same smile can stretch and tremble, transforming him into something more skeletal and cryptic. Davis gives the movie a sincere level of depth and charm, allowing audiences to root for and pity the dying singer. Moreover, it's gratifying to see that Davis still possesses what it takes to deliver a quality performance that showcases his incredible range and talent as an actor, a talent that's been hidden away from audiences for way too long.

The movie is directed by Ben Epstein, whose young career has mainly consisted of music videos and sports shows. He expertly weaves together an intimate and personal story about death, regret and redemption. In fact, the structure of "Buck Alamo" feels less like a movie and more comparable to the songs of Townes Van Zandt. The movie is a literal ballad, broken down into three different stanzas, each with its own set of lyrics. There are moments where the movie's style feels like we're watching a music video, as scenes switch from black and white to color, and dreamlike surrealism becomes a backdrop for the heavy folksy soundtrack.

As of right now, "Buck Alamo" is my favorite film of the year. And that's saying a lot, considering just how big of a year this has been for the cinema with movies like "Barbie" and "Oppenheimer" and the slew of Oscar contenders in the theaters right now. There's just something enjoyable about watching a man dueling with the inevitable, knowing that it's a fight we'll all have to deal with one day or another. This is one gem that I'm glad tripped me up, and hopefully it finds the audience it's waiting for.

"Buck Alamo or (A Phantasmagorical Ballad)" is currently available to rent on most streaming platforms including Amazon Prime Video and Apple TV+.

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