Bull riders wear pretty tight jeans. That’s what that footage shows you right there.
–John Hyams, commentary
Human beings got a bridge between the left and right brain, Bulls, or livestock and domestic animals, they don’t. so they’re a lot more telepathic, they know what you’re thinking before you do sometimes.
Dillon Page raises bucking bulls. His face weathered, his eyes light blue, he introduces himself at the start of Rank as a working man. He and his son H.D. are partners, he says, as the camera pulls out from each, one after the other, solemn piano on the soundtrack. Their operation, the D&H Cattle Ranch, is vast and efficient. The bulls are numbered, well fed, and quiet where they live. “My goal for raising a bull,” says Dillon, “Is maybe not to raise one that can be unridden, but one that the cowboys like to get on. And if they mess up in any way, they get threw off.”
And with that, the placid farm scene cuts to a rodeo gate, a bull flying forward toward the camera, twisting and contorting its muscular form to achieve exactly that end — to throw off the man on his back, his blue-jeaned legs and torso whipping every whichway. The bull is massive and fast, the crowd cheers loudly, the bull fighters (the men whose job it is to tease the bull away from the rider once he’s hit the dirt) converge on the animal with a ballsy sort of grace. As director John Hyams says while observing the fighters later, “Like the people who run with the bulls in Spain, they pretty much do that 45 times a night.”
It’s an incredible, hectic, slam-banging show. And you might wonder, as Hyams and producer Jon Greenhalgh did, what possesses young men (and increasingly, women) to take up such an apparently brutal career. Rank — now out on DVD with a terrific commentary track by Hyams, Greenhalgh, and producer and “sound guy” Neil Neil Fazzary — explores the ethos and sensibility of cowboys, while maintaining an observational distance that’s part alluring, part respectful. The cowboys’ dedication and tolerance for pain can seem astounding, equally legible as courage and craziness. As indicated by the constantly updated injuries listing on PBR’s website, the riders As Hyams observes, “I don’t think there’s a single guy involved in this who hasn’t had a horrific injury at some point, really, a career-ending injury for most sports.” And yet they persist, their bodies rebuilt with metal screws, artificial joints, and stitches — hundreds of stitches — determined to reach the goals they set for themselves. Rank follows three such riders — Brazilian-born, two-time world champion Adriano Moraes (34 years old), and up-and-comers Mike Lee (21) and Justin McBride (25) — as they pursue the 2004 title, to be awarded to the cumulative point winner at the end of a week-long competition in Vegas. Each of 45 contestants rides a different bull every day. And at the end, the PBR (Professional Bull Riders) victor, reads an intertitle, “receives a gold belt buckle and a check for $1 million.”
This money is especially helpful for riders who are, for the most part, also ranchers. “Riding bulls is not something you’re gonna do forever,” says Justin. “It’s not even something you’re gonna do very long.” A dedicated hunter, Justin wants to end up on a ranch, he says, where he can drink beer and hunt with bow and arrow (he puts it more colorfully, that he’s looking forward to being able to “kill the shit out of everything in sight”). “The main thing why people hunt,” he observes, “is not so much that they’re overpopulated. It’s just because people like to hunt.” A third-generation rider, Justin’s grandfather died during a competition at 48; his grandmother, a tough “Western woman” in her own right, can’t help but tear up as she ponders Justin’s chances in what she calls this “bad business.”
Mike, a 21-year-old born again Christian, keeps his own kind of faith. “If I wasn’t riding bulls for a living,” he observes, “I wouldn’t have a really good job or nothing, ’cause I’m not a really smart kind of guy. My talent is livestock. I just have a feel for livestock, riding horses and riding bulls.”
He does have that. Again and again, Mike appears soothing bulls and horses, from the moment he mounts them. “I think maybe they feel more safe when they feel you against them,” he says. While it doesn’t keep him from being thrown, it this sense of connection does grant Mike — and other riders — the necessary confidence to stay on careening animal for the eight seconds that define a ride, as opposed to a wreck. They also share a sense of fate, trusting that what they’re doing is right for them, underlies the riders’ commitment and certainty. “Bullriding is dancing with the animal,” asserts Adriano. “Pretty much neutralizing what the bull’s doing. To do that you’ve gotta have a balance, a lot of core and lower back strength, and a lot of love.”
Such sensitivity might seem to contradict the tough guy persona most riders affect. But each rider has his own means of finding and performing peace. Adriano, says Greenhalgh, “doesn’t have that typical quietness of a lot of the American riders. He’s the kind of guy who will really talk a lot, he’s really open and friendly. For some reason, that made me think he wasn’t as tough as the rest of them.” He is, rather, “tough” in his own, decidedly un-stereotypical way. The riders are firm and cocky when riding, and gentle, sometimes taciturn on the ground, willing enough interview subjects but hardly voluble.
The riders’ inscrutability appears equally a function of their own inclination and the film’s presentation. A spare, allusive soundtrack (by the Unseen Hand) helps to frame them as contemplative, self-protective in demeanor if not in daily activity. Whether gambling or praying, limping off to compete or, in the case of Adriano, watching his young son ride his horse, the men are complex and honorable figures, ambitious and respectful. Dillon the bull breeder notes, “The cowboys got a whole different way of life, my goodness. They help each other even though they’re competing against one another. In business, we don’t do it that way, you know, you’ve got to be number one because that seems like the only way to make a living.”
Greenhalgh admits in the commentary that as they were shooting during the 2004 U.S. presidential election, he and the film crew tended to disagree with their subjects regarding candidates and policies. “They’re not dumb people,” he says, “Their views are just so different from my own. It kind of made me soften on what I think of Midwestern Republicans.” Hyams adds, as they watch a military display to open a night’s competition, “Their children are going to war. The recruiters are at every bullriding event. In one way, I didn’t understand their way of thinking, but in another way, they do back up what they’re saying.”
The filmmakers’ differences from their subjects translate into a kind of poetic appreciation, the documentary revealing riders’ labors and pains while refraining from overt judgments. That’s not to say the film doesn’t work the story. Hyams and Greenhalgh’s intelligent commentary reveals their thinking and their methods, rejecting the fiction of “objective” representation and using the form to tell stories. Given the riders’ tendency not to emote, Hyams says, they make use of supporting figures (“You kind of get the emotion through the relatives of your characters”) and organize narrative to suggests truths other than facts. Explaining their arrangement of scenes, not quite true to the “reality” timeline, Greenhalgh says, “We would never set anything up, we’re not people who do that, but we’re not opposed to taking something and shifting the reality of where it actually happened to suit our story.”
It turns out that the filmmaking process was as much a story as as any of the bullriders’ sagas. Greenhalgh and Hyams discovered during editing that a second documentary crew had been working on the same subject, completely independently. When they spotted other cameras and mics in the background of their own frames, the filmmakers wondered briefly how to handle the overlap, then decided there was nothing they could do — save for not calling their film Bullrider, which is the title of Josh Aronson’s documentary.
Taking a cue from its subjects, Rank is open to surprises, and respectful of hard work and routine. It’s not so much a record of the sport or even these three competitors as it is a reflection on bullriding as show, focus, and life. As rowdy and aggressive as their work can be, the riders find in it an unexpected elegance. As Johnny Cash sang, “Well it’s something like a hurricane that’s dancing with a kite.”