Want to feel old? Napoleon Dynamite came out over a decade ago. Alas, that decade hasn't treated the film's co-creators, husband-and-wife writer-director team Jared and Jerusha Hess, especially well. But there's one highly under-rated gem in their film history that deserves your attention.
Their follow-up feature to Dynamite, the Jack Black Mexican-wrestling vehicle Nacho Libre, does have a following (and, to my mind, shows a side of Mexico rarely seen on film with such clarity), but it stands amid a wreckage: never-aired Utah State Fair commercials, a swiftly canceled Napoleon Dynamite cartoon series, a tepidly received Jerusha-directed adaptation of Shannon Hale's Austenland, and other flops.
I submit that the time has come to pick out of that wreckage Gentlemen Broncos, the Hesses' third feature. This vomit-soaked story of an aspiring young sci-fi novelist in snowy small-town Utah and the rivalry he develops with his self-aggrandizing mentor (played by Flight of the Conchords' Jemaine Clement) barely played in theaters when it opened back in 2009, ostensibly due to poor reviews. But New Yorker critic Richard Brody, whose insights into film I've long admired, saw its virtues as early as 2012 when he put out the short video essay on it above.
Brody calls Gentlemen Broncos an "ecstatic and personal exploration—in loopy, gross-out comic form—of the essence of faith in cosmic religious vision itself, and the ease with which those visions can be perverted to worldly ends," and as a result "one of the most original movies about religion ever made."
Napoleon Dynamite fans belonging to the Church of Latter-Day Saints will tell you that the Hesses saturated that picture with Mormon cultural references, but Gentlemen Broncos tackles the complications of belief in a richer way.
Word on the film-festival circuit says their new Don Verdean has them working again with not just Broncos alumni Clement and Sam Rockwell, but another remote cranny of America — perhaps the element of their filmmaking I appreciate most of all.
"Gentlemen Broncos Return" [The New Yorker]