The climax of My Stretch of Texas Ground, a new movie that easily rests in the pantheon of the weirdest Texas movies ever made, comes when Sheriff Joe Haladin—rhymes with paladin, that whitest of knights—storms the makeshift compound of the terrorist Abdul Latif Hassan, played by Junes Zahdi, an actor the movie’s website identifies as being from “Morrocco [sic],” saving Haladin’s son in the process. (Spoiler alert, sorry.) So far, so good. Hometown hero hamstrings halal hoodlum: the plotline that launched a thousand TV episodes and bad action movies over the past twenty years.
But the emotional climax of Texas Ground, the thing that makes this movie unlike all the others, comes earlier. Haladin, played by Austin songwriter Jeff Weber doing a pretty good impression of Friday Night Lights’ Coach Taylor, has learned that terrorists are holding his son and Harlan Cruthers, a warmongering U.S. senator from Texas whom they also plan to kill. The FBI is in town, looking for the lawmaker, but Haladin gives them the slip and returns home to his wife. He’s going to round up his deputies and go get his boy.
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Haladin’s blue-eyed and blond wife, who has previously served to radiate domestic bliss, is furious. Why is he going in alone? Why not get the help of the feds? In another action movie, this might be time for a speech about the warrior’s code, but Haladin goes in a different direction. The feds are liars, he says; they can’t be trusted. They’ll save the senator and let his son die. They’ve killed so many other people’s sons in Yemen and Afghanistan and Iraq, and without congressional authorization, no less. The blood-soaked claws of the imperialist American eagle wrap around the globe, he tells her. “That’s different,” she says through tears. “That’s war. They wouldn’t let a child die here at home.”
“What about Waco, Carrie?” yells Haladin, drawing on an aspect of Texas’s heritage that most viewers probably weren’t expecting. The government burned children to death at the compound that day, he reminds her.
And that’s the surprising thing about My Stretch of Texas Ground. Though you wouldn’t know it from its trailer, it casts the feds as the real villains. By contrast, Hassan, the jihadi, is a kind of antihero set out to kill a senator who had it coming. His relative virtue is signaled by the fact that he is hot, is prone to wearing tight T-shirts, and sports facial hair of the kind you’re more likely to see at a club in Beirut than on a battlefield near Raqqa. (One of the movie’s taglines hints at but doesn’t do justice to the weird chemistry between Haladin and Hassan: “Two men, both alpha males, from vastly different cultures, are about to collide . . . HARD.”)
Hassan is here in Texas to do harm because the U.S. government did harm to him and his people—what used to be called blowback. Haladin goes to get his son, who is being held on a property called Ruby Ridge. He and his deputies, dressed in tactical black, spot a man they think might be Hassan going to his SUV. “Sure looks Arab to me,” says a deputy, upon which Hassan immediately pulls a cartoonishly large scimitar out of the vehicle (so as to do the beheading). That’s probably him, yeah.
My Stretch of Texas Ground is like an episode of Walker, Texas Ranger written by Ron Paul, with the aesthetic of Friday Night Lights and the comic timing and unnervingly kitschy production values of the third season of David Lynch’s Twin Peaks. It’s a gem. It probably won’t be in theaters near you anytime soon, but it’s the kind of movie we deserve in 2019, and that’s not nothing.
The movie is not actually written by Ron Paul, of course, but by Ralph Cinque, who during the day operates a supervised fasting center in Buda—Dr. Cinque’s Health Retreat. But Cinque’s true passion lies elsewhere—he’s a prominent figure in the Oswald Innocence Campaign, or OIC, a group whose purpose is to prove that Lee Harvey Oswald didn’t shoot the president, in part by showing skeptics a picture of Oswald’s face next to a very blurry photo of a man in the doorway of the Texas School Book Depository at the crucial moment.
“The idea that Doorman could be any other man is preposterous and stupid,” writes Cinque on the OIC’s website. “Notice first that they are both wearing long-sleeved shirts.” Cinque has led the charge to clear Oswald’s name for many years, partly by writing songs, like this adaptation of John Lennon’s “Nowhere Man,” retitled “Doorway Man.” In his spare time, Cinque wrote a novel called Texas Ground. When he announced on a Kennedy assassination listserv that he was turning it into a movie, the other conspiracy theorists, who can be a cruel and venomous bunch to each other, taunted Cinque by noting that OIC are also the initials of the Organization for Islamic Cooperation. A coincidence, you say? There are no coincidences.
Texas Ground may have been directed and produced by other people, but Cinque is the driving force behind it. At the January premiere at an Alamo Drafthouse in South Austin, Weber and Zahdi rose briefly to speak about their friendship, Weber calling for the audience to “put our political views aside” and Zahdi deeming the film an “antiwar, pro-peace movie,” before Cinque stood up and gave an extended disquisition on the values of the movie and the things he had learned while making it.
One night, he recalled, the crew had been shooting in the driveway of a house near Austin, but a nearby party was making it impossible to get sound. Cinque went over to ask if they could quiet down, only to be told that the couple who lived in the house were celebrating the wife’s birthday and that they had invited eight couples who were their closest friends and that they would not be putting a lid on it. “Do people really have that many close friends?” Cinque asked the audience. “If all of my close friends were going to my funeral, they could share a cab.” His crew fixed the sound problem by having the character in question leave a different house than he’d entered in a previous scene.
Cinque raved about the performances he elicited from his actors. “Sheriff Joe” would be going on Weber’s tombstone, he said, which sounded a bit like a threat. He was so impressed by the turn taken by Hailley Lauren, who plays Haladin’s wife, that he had arranged for a brief theatrical run in L.A. to make her, and the movie, eligible for the Academy Awards.
Texas Ground opens on an aerial shot of the carpet-bombing of an unnamed desert town in the Middle East. Afterward, a crew of very clean-cut terrorists talk about the enormous number of civilian casualties the United States has caused since the war on terror began. They get back at the Americans by sending a man to kill Senator Cruthers, a good old boy who serves on the Senate Armed Services Committee and loves killing “the enemy.” They produce a tape of Cruthers talking on a cable news show about the mechanics of Congress’s 2001 authorization for use of military force—the first of what is to be many wonky byways.
The TV screen in this scene, as well as the carpet-bombing, are rendered with a very janky kind of computer-generated imagery, which appears throughout the movie, one of many running features that elevates Texas Ground from bad filmmaking to sublime filmmaking. Many, many things in the movie are done with CGI. Cartoon decals on government vehicles are painted on afterward. A fake cartoon computer desktop is pasted onto a real computer screen. In one scene, Haladin drinks from a coffee cup that contains CGI coffee. The CGI bounces and jumps around as people move and the camera zooms in and out. Weber wears an old sheriff’s uniform whose patch shows it’s from Matagorda County. In some scenes, the patch has been altered to say “Vatacorda County,” and in others, the whole thing is simply blurred out, as if it had a penis on it.
The terrorists select Hassan to kill Cruthers in what looks a lot like a mansion in L.A., and Hassan smuggles himself across the U.S.-Mexico border, along with an immigrant mother and her son. They’re chased by the Border Patrol, whose CGI-ed trucks are made to look like they’re giving chase by speeding up the footage, giving it the impression of a Benny Hill skit. When the Border Patrol stop Hassan, he kills at least three of them and helps the mother escape. He’s picked up on the other side by his two similarly buff sidekicks in their new pickup truck, and the game is on.
Haladin, meanwhile, is busy in his sleepy town being the wokest sheriff in Texas. A bureaucrat from the county calls him to say he needs to gin up fake stats to get more money to fight the opioid epidemic, and Haladin replies, “Well, the drug that provokes the most crime is alcohol.” He refuses to help defend a deputy whose malfeasance led to someone’s death, infuriating more bureaucrats. He’s shown hanging uncomfortably at the animal-head-filled man cave of some old bros, chastising them for wanting to kill brown people.
When Haladin’s ideological and temperamental opposite, Cruthers, is finally assassinated, the movie is glad to see him go, an odd note in a film full of them. But there’s time for one more man-on-man tango, on the banks of the Pedernales. It comes time for Haladin to kill Hassan, but he can’t do it. They’re too much alike—they both just want to defend what’s theirs. And then a sniper in a helicopter plugs Hassan, and the movie ends.
Texas Ground probably doesn’t make it to the level of, say, The Room, a timelessly good-bad movie. But it approaches it, and even the premiere audience was laughing at lines by the end. The movie will probably be streaming somewhere eventually, but if you want to catch it on the big screen, you better go now—its brief theatrical run at the Laemmle Music Hall Theater, in Beverly Hills, started February 22.
That’s Laemmle as in Carl Laemmle, the cofounder of Universal Pictures, under whose leadership the company pumped out a deluge of B- and C-level horror movies in the twenties and thirties, to help vent and reflect America’s troubled id. That’s one thing movies are for, bad ones and good ones alike—they’re textbooks about people and places and times, and they mirror reality in strange ways. The Manchurian Candidate came out at the height of the Cuban Missile Crisis and a year and a month before the Kennedy assassination. The seventies brought with it a flood of movies about alienation, paranoia, a fear of growing corporate and state power, and the decline of trust in each other.
We’re in another panicky moment as a culture. What does Hollywood make of it? Not much, it seems. We’ve seen a handful of movies try to grapple with what today feels like—the Ethan Hawke vehicle First Reformed, for example—but there are only a few, and they’re hard to watch. The best foreign movies of 2018, like Zama and Burning, carry the message that the search for meaning in the world is a kind of self-deception, best avoided.
What if the only kind of sense that can be made of this moment is nonsense and the only kind of meaning meaninglessness? Every day feels like a hundred years; the people who fear the future most are the ones who have the longest to live in it, and on top of it all, there’s a neverending, indecipherable screech of disorder to which the only response can be to laugh as often as one is able.
Maybe it’s Tim & Eric’s world and we’re just crashing on their couch. In which case, maybe Texas Ground deserves that Oscar nomination. As for me, I’ve resolved to take a page from Sheriff Haladin—tomorrow I’ll wake up, fill my cup with CGI coffee, and get to work as best I know how.