Oldenburg Film Festival Review: Buck Alamo

Buck Alamo is a simple tale of a man looking back at his life and trying to fight off death.

Death for Buck Alamo (Sonny Carl Davis), the singing cowboy, is inevitable. Not only is the voice of Death (Bruce Dern) used as a voiceover throughout the film, but his doctor has told him in no uncertain terms that the end of his life is very near. Buck, for all his charm, has been a pretty terrible father. He decides to do what he can to patch up his relationship with his estranged daughter Dee (Lee Eddy), though it is far too little, entirely too late. Daughter Caroline (Lorelei Linklater) lives close by and regularly sees Buck, though the echoes of her turbulent childhood are still reverberating in her present life.

Buck was far worse than your typical deadbeat father, which we gather through his conversations with himself and both daughters, Beyond being absent and drunk, his drug use and troubles with the law left them with either no dad or a terrible one, both of which are undesirable options.

But Buck Alamo is not a quest for redemption or forgiveness. While Buck goes through the motions of those, he seems to know on some level that he has not earned either and does not put forth the effort worthy of them. Rather, Buck seems to be gesturing. You see, Buck is lost. He is a cowboy crooner who can no longer pick his guitar. His hands are in pain, and no amount of pills will make them cooperate enough to play the way he needs to. Instead, he goes through life with the little things he needs. He is never without his dog Chester and his notebook of lyrics to sad songs he has written.

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This is not a film that is carried by plot or exposition, or character arcs and growth; it is a film that allows us to spend a little time with a dying, jagged man, as he seeks little comforts in his last days. The film often flips from color to black and white, depending on Buck’s state. It is dreamlike and grounded in reality, much like wandering life itself. He seeks the company of his preacher (Kriston Woodreaux), but never seems to be overrun by spirituality. Much like his daughters are stand-ins for the concept of “Family”, the reverend is a symbol for “Salvation” which is ultimately hollow. Buck is going through the motions, with little expectations.

This is not to say that Buck is entirely void of value, both on screen and in his life. As soon as he begins to sing it is clear that the man has a gift. At first we see him trotting out at a children’s party. A relic of long gone times. But when Buck sings, it is handsomely bittersweet. The man has a dulcet voice, dripping with character and pain. He sings his country dirges with a smile, because they are the last things to bring meaning to his existence.

Toward the end of the film, after all his half-assed attempts at reparations are met with restraining orders and eye rolls, Buck sets out to have one last musical night with old friends. Sitting around the fire, under the strings of lights, they strum while he sings. This scene is in no hurry to end, and it gives us the time to soak in all of the atmosphere of the country ballads and friends, old and new. Watching this unfold is truly magical, regardless of where you stand on Buck. In our current era, it makes me miss seeing live music terribly. Moments this spellbinding are rare on screen and rarer in life, and the opportunity to slow down and just enjoy it unfolding is a powerful experience.

Buck Alamo does not ask you to forgive, and it understands if you never forget. But don’t let that keep you from having one last evening under the stars, living in the moment, with one of the last true singing cowboys.

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