For me, professional bull riding ranks somewhere between Olympic curling and women's billiards on the list of all-time favorite sports. In fact, like people who only go to church on Christmas, I'm one of those people who really only watches sports on Super Bowl Sunday. So, it's pretty safe to say that the new documentary Bullrider is not aimed at me.
If you've never chewed tobacco, slapped a “Support Our Troops” bumper sticker on your pickup truck or burned a Dixie Chicks record, then you are not the demographic that Bullrider is aiming for either. That isn't to say that Bullrider isn't a decent or a successful movie. It's just that the filmmakers are focussed on their redneck, red-state target audience to the exclusion of all others. Why ask questions or probe issues when you can simply show a slowly waving American flag and get a hearty yelp of support from the folks in Lubbock?
Bullrider covers a full season in the Professional Bull Riders rodeo tour and aims its camera lens on the top three contenders for the 2004 World Championship. The principal interests of these young fellas are Jesus, the American flag, bull riding, fireworks and President Bush (in that order). As it turns out, Bullrider isn't just aimed at rabid fans of bull riding. It's aimed at rabid Christian fans of bull riding.
To start with, it isn't the easiest task in the world to milk drama out of a sport that, at its best, lasts all of eight seconds. (If not for slo-mo cameras, this would be a short instead of a feature.) Credit for the film's slow-building tension goes to director Josh Aronson (who--oddly enough--directed the Academy Award-nominated documentary Sound and Fury, as well as several films about transsexual and transgendered people). Aronson's camera is right there in the fray of things, and the filmmaker assembles his footage with just the right interplay of character and action.
From the evidence at hand, 2004 was an exciting year for PBR fans. Two-time World Champion Adriano Moraes was vying for his record-breaking third championship. Despite broken bones, torn ligaments and other crippling injuries, veteran Justin McBride and 21-year-old upstart Mike Lee were nipping close at Moraes' heels, leading to a neck-and-neck finish at the World Finals in Las Vegas. Would the 34-year-old Brazilian farmer pull it off, or would one of the new boys usurp his dusty crown?
Bullrider is at its most enlightening when spotlighting the brutal physical tortures these athletes endure. Any cowboy who walks away from the sport with less than a dozen titanium pins in his body is lucky. The unlucky ones are the cowpokes in coffins. Legendary rodeo vets like Ty Murray (seven-time World Champion All-Around Cowboy) and Jim Shoulders (16-time World Champion Rodeo Gold Medal Winner) are on hand to put it all in perspective. “They don't wanna see somebody get killed, but if they do, they don't wanna miss it,” says Shoulders sagaciously.
Despite the occasional shout-outs to The Lord and the overly sincere Christian rock soundtrack, the film doesn't hammer home any particular religious message. The fact that these cowboys are good Christians is simply a part of their general makeup: Along with the pickup truck and the Levi's, it's a given. Even so, the religious angle ends up detracting a bit from the film. It's briefly mentioned that these Stetson-wearing Christian soldiers steer clear of the booze, women and other temptations offered by the professional bull riding circuit. One can't help but think, however, that such temptations might have added to the drama of it all. Also, the unwavering faith these cowboys display wipes away any hint of fear or doubt--which makes it a little hard to get worked up over what might happen to them.
Bullrider isn't the sort of eye-opening, preconceived notion-shattering documentary that will recruit legions of new fans to its chosen sport. (The makers of Murderball have no worries.) Aronson's film is competent and well-shot, but is far too content to simply preach to the already converted. Of course, if you're keen on Christ and riled up for rodeo, then shine up your best bolo tie and git on down to the theater while you can.