Documentary Review: ‘American Rodeo: A Cowboy Christmas’

Despite its stentorian narration delivered by what sounds like a budget Sam Elliott and some misty-eyed ruminations on the iconography of the American cowboy, H. D. Motyl’s “American Rodeo: A Cowboy Christmas” does a lot to deglamorize the cowboy lifestyle. Or at least the steer wrestler lifestyle. Motyl follows four steer wrestlers (or “bulldoggers” as they’re also known) from rodeo to rodeo over a hectic two-week period affectionately dubbed “Cowboy Christmas.” Some fifty rodeos are held over the fortnight prior to July 4th with a total payout in the millions.

A few crazy souls—four of whom are profiled in the film—pack up the truck, hitch up the horse trailer and drive thousands of miles to try to grab a piece of the pie. A single rodeo can end up paying out thousands of dollars, but most steer wrestlers will have to suffer defeat after defeat before they see any cash. One rodeoer profiled in “American Rodeo” goes the whole two weeks without a single payout. When one factors in the cost of fuel, lodging, entry fees, food, and caring for the horses, a lot of bulldoggers will end up losing money on the deal.

So why do it at all? For the men profiled in “American Rodeo” it has more to do with a passion for the sport and a commitment to self-improvement than the money. Unfortunately, Motyl’s film does not always convey that sense of passion very effectively. The structure is a basic mix of talking head interviews and competition footage, neither of which are captured with much visual intrigue. Motyl’s footage is pretty workmanlike, flat images of driving, talking, and steer wrestling. This is, at least in part, due to Motyl’s obvious limited production budget—the film is plainly as much a labor of love as the steer riding it depicts—but in its own way it’s an effective aesthetic, helping to deromanticize the popular imaginings of the American West and bringing the project down to a purely human level.

More problematic is the fact that Motyl never really finds a narrative or thematic thrust in his material. We watch as these guys drive around from rodeo to rodeo. Sometimes one of them has a good run; often they don’t, but not much really seems at stake here. Thus the film—which only runs a brief 75 minutes—often feels rhythm-less and repetitive. Motyl has spent a lot of time with his subjects, but he isn’t quite able to draw them as full-bodied characters. The film is so fixated on the minutiae of the rodeo circuit that the lives and the personalities of the people sometimes gets lost. Perhaps that’s not the case for those who know and love the sport; they may find that these guys’ slightly differing approaches to bulldogging is the most effective sort of character development, but for those of us who know little about rodeoing, the film can feel a little weedy. Perhaps Motyl is a victim of his own success here: he’s so good at capturing the wearying monotony of the rodeo circuit that his film becomes a bit of a slog itself.

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