Buck Alamo A Phantasmagorical Ballad (2020)

That the end is near for Eli Cody (the great Sonny Carl Davis), also known by his stage name Buck Alamo, is clear from the beginning of writer/director Ben Epstein’s feature debut Buck Alamo, in which a voiceover from Death himself  (Bruce Dern) promises the ‘ballad’ of his memorable ‘duel’ with ol’ Buck. Indeed the film, whose subtitle is A Phantasmagorical Ballad, is formally divided, like a lyrical composition, into four ‘stanzas’, each accompanied by a textual quote on the meaning (or non-meaning) of life and death. 

Eli is – or at least was – a talented country guitarist before age and arthritis took away his ability to pick rhythm. His voice can still carry a tune, and he is still penning lyrics to future ballads that he will probably never perform – but told by his doctor that he is terminally ill, he sets out to make peace with his past, in a quest for some sort of coherent meaning to a long, ignominious life of band tours, divorces, drug binges, alcoholism and child abandonment. So this is an eleventh hour trip down memory lane, as Eli, now sober, tries – and broadly fails – to be reconciled with his two estranged daughters: the one, Dee (Lee Eddy), now a married convert to Judaism in a middle-class suburban home, and the other, Caroline (Lorelei Linklater), living in the farmhouse next door to Eli with her young son Haggy (James Epstein). Caroline barely even speaks to her father, while her drug-taking musician boyfriend Levi (Chase Joliet) is a little too much like Eli to have any kind of good future ahead of him.

Sonny Carl Davis as Eli Cody (aka Buck Alamo)

“I’ve been thinking lately about the colours we see in life,” Eli tells his doctor. “The reds, greens, blues – that’s the interesting one.” Up to this point Epstein’s film has been presented in strict monochrome, but it will soon admit all manner of colours, whether naturalistic, or stylised neons, while its melancholic mode is definitely in the key of blue. With one foot in the grave, Eli hangs out with his dog Chester and Haggy, contemplates suicide, dreams of more gigs, visits the local Preacher (Kriston Woodreaux) whose father’s life he had once saved in Vietnam, meets up with his old friend the Texan folk and country singer George Ensle (playing himself), and takes to patrolling the farm at night with a loaded gun in his hand. It is a gentle, impressionistic portrait of a man facing up to his mortality and reassessing what he is leaving behind. 

Just waiting for the man in black to come take him, self-confessed “wannabe has-been” Eli falls in line with the old-timers of David Lynch’s The Straight Story (1999), John Carroll Lynch’s Lucky (2017) and Robert D. Krzykowski’s The Man Who Killed Hitler and Then the Bigfoot (2018) – geriatric heroes haunted by their disappointments and regrets. Set in Austin, Texas, Buck Alamo A Phantasmagorical Ballad is indeed full of sad ballads, and might even be regarded as a sort of elegiac musical – a (country) western – as good ol’ boy Eli sings and even plays (at least in his imagination), and rediscovers his purpose. Mixing vivid realism with dreamy hallucinations and moments of ethereal beauty, Buck Alamo is as grounded as the geodes that Eli fashions into ornaments to sell in town, and as abstract as a Biblical apocalypse. Even as oblivion approaches, Buck is one Alamo you’ll remember.

© Anton Bitel