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Accidental Texan

A bad first impression won’t necessarily ruin a movie. If anything, it’s more important that a film stick the landing, so the audience doesn’t walk out grumbling, “it was okay, but that ending.” 

Still, sometimes a movie stumbles so badly in its first five minutes that it never recovers. Such is the case with “Accidental Texan,” a film whose opening sequence so utterly fails to evoke the look and feel of a movie set that it calls into question how much director Mark Lambert Bristol knows about life in general. Because if a filmmaker can’t convincingly evoke filmmaking, what could they possibly have to say about anything else?

It’s certainly essential context for the down-home folksiness that drives the majority of the film, which unfolds after aspiring actor Erwin Vandeveer (Rudy Pankow) is fired from his lead role in the blockbuster movie mentioned above. Why? For a technical snafu where the ringtone (which is on) of his phone (which is in the front pocket of his costume) somehow sets off a chain of explosions that destroys the entire set he’s standing on. 

Driving back to Los Angeles, Erwin’s Prius breaks down, forcing him to wander on foot into the type of wholesome one-horse hamlet that only exists in the movies. There, he encounters Faye (Carrie-Ann Moss), an utterly unconvincing small-town diner waitress. (No offense to Ms. Moss, who’s great, but she has never called anyone “hon” in her life.) She tells him that the people here in Buffalo Gap, Texas live a simpler—and therefore more morally pure, in this movie’s calculus—type of lifestyle, and he’ll have to wait until tomorrow to get his car towed. He ends up staying much longer than that. 

Erwin’s Boston upbringing and book learnin’ (he’s a Harvard business school dropout) are foils for the film’s rough-palmed, no-nonsense rural conservatism, embodied in the character of Merle Luskey (Thomas Haden Church). Like the town he lives in, Merle is a conservative fantasy—he’s an independent oil man, of all things, which means he gets to live the Republican dream of being a “small business owner” and destroying the environment at the same time. 

Merle has problems with the bank that need a Harvard boy to get solved, you see. And while it’s difficult to conceive of a man who owns multiple oil rigs as an underdog, it’s also difficult to wrap your mind around a soundstage that’s rigged to self-destruct when a cell phone goes off. And so here we are, trapped by generic sentiment and puzzling conceit, in a film that would provide at least some small pleasure by virtue of its casting were it not directed as if Bristol were wearing oven mitts. 

Faye looks at Merle with wet eyes, Merle dispenses gruff wisdom, Erwin learns the inevitable lessons about loyalty and hard work, and the town sheriff throws his cowboy hat on the ground in frustration because those old boys, they’ve done it again! Bruce Dern shows up, for a little while, as an eccentric old coot who talks to his pet cow. Everyone agrees that rugged independence is a virtue, and the folksy aphorisms and quirky humor never quite land even with the aid of a score that hits every clichéd emotional beat possible. 

Part of that disconnect comes from the clumsy filmmaking. The film’s sense of space and time are both disjointed, thanks to poor editing: Cuts between characters conversing in what’s ostensibly the same room often feel as though they were shot miles apart. (Which may be true, but it’s an editor’s job to disguise that.) And the script is so declarative and predictable that it suggests that the writers felt their audience must be stupid.

That last part points to what makes “Accidental Texan” such a discordant melody, despite playing what would seem to be a popular tune. This movie is clearly pandering: Cultural signifiers like tall, cool glasses of sweet tea and Whataburger wrappers are prominently placed in the frame, and Merle asserts that he dropped out in the eighth grade to go work on his daddy’s rig, and he’s just as smart as Mr. Harvard over here. 

What’s unclear is whether this project is clumsy, but earnest, or a cynical attempt to sell a shoddy film to the “DVD section at Walmart” crowd. If that’s the case, it worked—“Accidental Texan” is playing select theaters this weekend, ironically mostly in big cities. Congrats? 

Katie Rife

Katie Rife is a freelance writer and critic based in Chicago with a speciality in genre cinema. She worked as the News Editor of The A.V. Club from 2014-2019, and as Senior Editor of that site from 2019-2022. She currently writes about film for outlets like Vulture, Rolling Stone, Indiewire, Polygon, and RogerEbert.com.

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Film Credits

Accidental Texan movie poster

Accidental Texan (2024)

103 minutes

Cast

Rudy Pankow as Erwin Vandeveer

Thomas Haden Church as Merle

Carrie-Anne Moss as Faye

Bruce Dern as Scheermeyer

Julio Cesar Cedillo as Sheriff Nail

Brad Leland as Max Dugan

Director

Writer

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