Made in 1978 on a very limited budget, raised by the filmmakers themselves, Eagle Pennell's Texan buddy comedy was instrumental in demonstrating what could be done outside the Hollywood studio system by a director of vision and talent, inspiring Robert Redford to set up the Sundance Institute to support and encourage other filmmakers with a more intimate, personal vision more closely related to how real people live, the film thus leading the way towards the modern US independent movie scene. Almost forgotten and up until now virtually impossible to see, Watchmaker's laudable efforts to restore the film, releasing it in a lavish 3-disc DVD package with numerous supporting features and commentaries, show however that the film is more than of just historical interest, and that despite the limitations of the production, the weaknesses in the non-professional acting and the rough-and-ready direction, there's a heart-warming honesty to its depiction of the people of the American South that a more polished film could never match.
Appropriately in a way then, the film is about two Texan men, Frank and Loyd, small-timers operating off the beaten track, working with imperfect equipment, knowing they can't compete with big business and unwilling to work within its rules. Their small-time business ventures inevitably founder, and they as often find themselves out of work and out of pocket, but they have an unshakable belief in their abilities and a determination to succeed, and are convinced that one day the invention of the right product or service is going to make them rich men. In the meantime, failures are shrugged off with a night-out on the town enjoying the music, companionship and the women that the local bars have to offer. The men's carefree outlook however isn't shared by Frank's wife Paulette or their son, who are increasingly finding Frank's lack of responsibility difficult to endure, but will the two men wake up to reality before it's too late, or will they continue to cling to their dreams?
In a way then, the situation of characters with talent and ability to succeed but with the capability of throwing it all away reflects the reality known by the director, and mirror the sad decline that would follow in his own personal life. It's this truthful honesty about the character flaws in these Texan men that make The Whole Shootin' Match compelling, entertaining and heartbreaking viewing, drawn directly from reality rather than trying to soften the approach to appeal to a wider mainstream audience. The characters may be flawed certainly, and act against their own best interests out of stupidity or pride, but what shines through it all and redeems their faults is the strength of the friendship between Frank and Loyd that is mutually supportive, completely trusting, enduring and ultimately touching. It's one of the greatest friendships ever depicted on the screen. The truth and sincerity of that vision - assisted in no small part from a gorgeous country-inflected guitar score by the director's brother Chuck Pennell - shines through and helps the film overcome the limitations of the budget and sometimes primitive shooting and acting techniques.
This is what independent cinema is all about and The Whole Shootin' Match consequently comes across as a kind of missing link between early Cassavetes and the more modern US indie of Kelly Reichardt (Old Joy), informing the slacker ethos of fellow Texans Richard Linklater (Slacker) or the Kentucker Audley (Team Picture), with a genuine feel for characters living outside the mainstream, trying to find their place in the world. More than a historical curiosity then, the personal commitment and uncompromising stance of all those involved in making The Whole Shootin' Match ensures that the qualities that made it inspirational to a whole new generation of filmmakers are still evident and still very much relevant. The outstanding presentation of the restored 16mm film elements is supported with a full set of extra features that include Pennell's first short film, a feature length documentary on the director, a CD of the soundtrack, and additional interviews, articles and commentaries.