Judge Katie Herrell surmises the closest most people have come to bullriding is John Travolta's Urban Cowboy.
8 seconds. One champion.
Dare you think bull riding is only a sport, Rank demonstrates that this death-defying (usually) activity is a lifestyle, complete with success, failures and an abundance of vices. Admirably, Rank doesn't glorify bull riding, but it does romanticize the starring livestock and highlight the sport's negative side—without passing judgement.
Facts of the Case
Rank documents three champion bull riders as they compete at the 2004 Professional Bull Riders (PBR) World Championships in Las Vegas. The film also chronicles the days of a bull breeder and the work of rodeo clowns.
As sunlight streams through the narrow slats of a metal feed bin, it is hard to not romanticize the agricultural lifestyle. Beautifully shot vistas of grazing cows and rough-trodden roads lend the earlier portion of this documentary a bucolic air.
But soon the pastoral setting is exchanged for the din of a rodeo arena, where flashing lights and screaming fans represent a commercialized alternative to days in the field.
The high stakes of the seven-day World Championships—an ostentatious gold belt buckle and one-million dollar check—is only one reason countless men devote their days to mechanical bulls that others ride only when taunted and inebriated.
The screaming fans (mostly ladies) and copious beer drinking are two other reasons, but Rank really shows how bull riding is much more of an "in the blood" sort of activity.
In following three of the top contenders at the Championships—Mike Lee, Justin McBride and Adriano Moraes—stories unravel about relatives long ago felled by a bucking bull, a silent connection to animals, and a realistic attitude about the dangers of their sport and the family neglect that accompanies the big leagues.
The movie alternates between the seven rounds of competition and interviews with connected parties: wives, mothers, grandmothers (one who appears tough as nails herself, but then chokes up when talking about her late husband who was crushed by a bull), bull breeders, and rodeo clowns. The interviews illuminate the accepted reality of the brutality of the sport. No one says they wish the rider in question would quit; they acknowledge not riding would destroy a bull rider just as much as the bull might.
The interviews with the bull breeder—a father-son operation inherited from the owner's own father—offers an interesting look at the chain of events that lead to the ring. All of the prized ring fighters have names and unique personalities. It is claimed that bucking sinewy men off their backs is something these beasts were born to do, and that the harness-like contraption wrapped around the bull's underbelly isn't bothering them a bit. The rest of the time the bulls are shown idling in a gated dirt patch or receiving injections to increase their fertility. Close-up shots of dripping cow noses make you want to reach out and pet them.
The footage of the bull riders themselves is much more brutal. McBride has to wear a special brace while competing in the Championships to cradle his pinned-up ankle. Despite claims that his leg is holding up, after every ride he takes a bit longer to get up and is repeatedly shot walking hitch-legged down a long, lonely hall.
Lee has a hairless scar stretching down the side of his head, the visible remnants of brain surgery resulting from his work. The unwrapping of Moraes heavily-bandaged arm is not for the weak stomached, and the immense bruise covering a rodeo clown's leg is the result of a head but from an angry bull.
When McBride finishes the Championships, he proclaims his next few months will be spent recuperating and beer drinking. Indeed, numerous shots of beer cans and long-neck bottles punctuate the film, as does the occasional still of a chewing tobacco tin. No one is ever pictured drunkenly up to no good, but the result of so many empty beer bottles is left to the viewer's imagination.
While the pictures are not always pretty, the lighting and the cameral angles are. The Championship stadium is shot from above and on the ground, with the occasional shot of the adoring fan. The bulls are shot up close, bucking mightily and penned up, and the men are shot playing with their kids and tightening their riding gloves. This is an all-access film that offers multiple vantage points from which to understand the bull riding lifestyle.
The accompanying soundtrack is an interesting one, primarily made of up melodic piano playing and what sounds like a classical orchestra. Without viewing the film, the choice of music seems ill-fitting for the content, but somehow it actually works. While there is a bit of the expected country-ish twangs in the opening scenes, the final tune is more carnival oregon grinder than ten-gallon hat. One of the Special Features titled "The Unseen Hand: Recording the Music for Rank" shows that it is indeed a piano score that you are listening to.
Another Special Feature, "Cowtown: Bull Riding Sessions" shows the film crew recreating all of the close-up sounds of bull riding—the cow bell, fences clanging, riders hitting the ground—that needed to be transposed into the scenes because of the amazing noise that accompanies a bull riding Championship. It is an illuminating segment, and made me aware of sounds I otherwise didn't notice.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
The portrayal of the bulls in Rank is a weird juxtaposition between friendly beast and ferocious beast. There appears to be no ill effects of being a circus-act of sorts, and that notion left me with a bit of disbelief about the whole process. I also wanted an annoyed wife to admit that their bull riding husbands were thrill seekers who were jeopardizing their entire lives, and the lives of their families, for eight seconds (the amount of time a rider at the Championship needs to stay on their bull for the ride to be counted) of thrill.
I personally think bull riding is a crazy sport, but then again, so are a lot of sports when you really look at them. Rank doesn't disagree that bull riding has an element of crazy in it, but it also shows that it is a sport, a life, of passion for many people.
Guilty and then some: 8 seconds. One champion. Two hospital visits. 18 cans of beer. One bull. Multiple screaming ladies. And a pair of spurs in a pear tree.
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