Pay attention to those colors and you can see the future.
You have to imagine Death’s (Bruce Dern) been waiting to take Eli Cody aka Buck Alamo (Sonny Carl Davis) for quite some time. The Texas-based, self-proclaimed expert guitar picker speaks fondly of those benders on drugs and alcohol that left his life a shambles. He relates the fact he can barely remember what happened with a smile tinged by the regret of what might have been both for his career (success led to celebration and thus its dissolution) and family (four failed marriages, an estranged daughter he gave away, and another who isn’t too keen to let him walk through the door despite living one house over). Those stories are all he has now that arthritis took his hands. He hopes they might keep the reaper at bay.
And what’s stopping them from doing so? Maybe the yarn he weaves in these final days of his life thanks to a dire prognosis that has his doctor telling him to get affairs in order will be one that Death wants to hear too. Give him the time to speak his truth. Give him the time to sing a melancholic song that’s as humorously wry as it is tragically cautionary. Who knows? Maybe his daughter Dee (Lee Eddy) will hear the call and open her arms with the help of the adoptive mother (C.K. McFarland‘s Suze) in whose care he left her. Maybe his old friend George Ensle will answer the phone and forgive him his trespasses for a final show to remind Texas of his squandered talents.
That’s what writer/director Ben Epstein provides old Eli through this “phantasmagorical ballad” aptly titled Buck Alamo after his beat-down protagonist’s moniker. With Chester the dog by his side and a box of halved geodes in his truck, Eli takes this encore tour on the road to make amends whether or not his victims are willing to listen. Let’s be honest, after all. Many of them shouldn’t. He’s burned too many bridges for too long to let a mortal diagnosis wipe the slate clean. There’s courage in the act, though—no matter how naïve he might be about the outcome. To stand-up to Death and ask for a little extra time to get his words out takes guts if only to acknowledge the pain he caused those he loves.
The question is therefore whether he actually does get them out because we can’t necessarily believe everything we see. Epstein begins his film in black and white with Eli stumbling outside the local church run by an old friend’s son (Kriston Woodreaux‘s Preacher). He’s tattered and torn and doing all he can to collect a few dollars on the street by selling his rocks to passersby and telling his stories of musical elation that always seem to skirt with suicide before their end. So when the image turns to color, we have to wonder about the cause. Are these moments about joy infiltrating his despair or are they visions of the perfect future he’ll never see occur in reality? A flicker tells us everything we need to know.
So does the state of confusion in which we find him the next morning—alone in his truck or asleep in his bed. He’s lived his life in a way that pushed everyone away, so for it to reach its conclusion with everyone coming back into the fold is more likely hallucination than happily-ever-after. This way of thinking also forces us to peek beneath the veil at what’s happening in Eli’s mind. What is it that he sees when his daughter Caroline (Lorelei Linklater) is being abused by her boyfriend Levi (Chase Joliet)? Is it her pain? Or is it a metaphorical allusion to the pain he wrought upon the women in his life? When he points that gun at Levi, is he really pointing it at himself?
That’s the real tragedy. Death doesn’t have to let Eli do anything. Whether drugs, old age, cancer, or depression, this is a man who’s beat himself up as much as the world has. This encore tour is therefore more about absolution than a swan song for excitement. It’s an acknowledgement of his mistakes and a contrite plea for charity not from those he wronged, but from a God he’s about to meet face-to-face. Death hovers because he knows the end is nigh. Whether it occurs in Eli’s sleep or at the barrel of a gun, Death will be there to scoop up his soul and take it where it needs to go. And rather than rely on the forgiveness of others, his destination ultimately relies on forgiving himself.
The result is a sweetly sorrowful tale of a man who simply cannot help himself from tilting reality in a way that softens its blow. Davis is as much a delight to watch while tapping his foot and belting out songs as he is devastating in those moments when Eli is unable to continue ignoring the truth. You only need to see Eddy’s incalculable hurt when confronted by a face she swore she’d never have to see again to understand why he’s had to embrace fantasy in the first place. It’s better to dream in color than endure the cost of your actions in black and white. It’s better to lament what wasn’t than confront what is. Buck Alamo has friends and fans. Eli Cody only has remorse.