Editor’s note: This review was originally published at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival. Bleecker Street releases the film in select theaters on Friday, December 2.
A middle-aged white man shaped like an empty shotgun shell stands on his lawn and speaks directly into a home video camera: “A lot of people think I’m kind of stupid for doing, but if there’s just one knucklehead out there who this will make a difference to — who sees this and says ‘maybe I will get one of those’ — then it’s worth it.” At which point he presses a pistol against his chest and shoots himself in the stomach.
The man is former U.S. Marine turned pizza restaurateur turned body armor salesman Richard Davis, the “one of those” he’s trying to advertise is a proprietary bulletproof vest much smaller and more wearable than what soldiers and policeman had worn until Davis started the company he called Second Chance in the late 1970s, and the bullet he fires into his gut represents but one of the 192 times that he’s performatively shot himself at point-blank range. “Easy as pie” he winces after the demonstration, a shuttlecock-sized welt forming above his belly button.
We think we’re looking at the kind of eccentric that America’s individualistic ethos has allowed this country to mass produce for the last 250 years, but Davis prefers to think of himself as just another humble participant in the arms race that’s been unfolding on this planet for the last 500 million years. “In 500 million years,” director Ramin Bahrani interjects in the affectless tone that will come to define his first documentary, “Richard Davis is the only man to shoot himself 192 times.”
One imagines that’s almost certainly true, but Bahrani’s carnival barker approach to non-fiction cinema suggests that fact-checking wasn’t a top priority here. An acolyte of Werner Herzog and Errol Morris who’s leveraged the neorealism of his early films (“Chop Shop,” “Man Push Cart”) into a much broader series of portraits and parables about the evils of capitalism (“99 Homes,” “The White Tiger”), Bahrani isn’t shy about editorializing Davis’ story — the story of a man who made a fortune by endangering the very customers he claimed to keep safe.
The director’s always jaw-dropping but often unfocused “2nd Chance” is cinched together by his running commentary, which starts with a clear plan of attack — “What drew me to Richard were his contradictions” — and only goes quiet during a tragicomic final scene so damning that it doesn’t leave any room for interpretation. To Bahrani, Davis is a caricature of the false altruism that dignifies the American experiment. “What makes a man risk his own life in order to save thousands of people, only to put hundreds of thousands of lives at risk?”
And yet, in stark contrast to something like Herzog’s “Grizzly Man” — which used a similarly puckish approach to hone in on the tragedy of its subject — every chapter of Davis’ biography leaves behind a new layer of collateral damage that Bahrani’s laser-targeted thesis can’t afford to examine. The result is a rich film that nevertheless calls regular attention to any of the even richer (if perhaps less entertaining) films it might have been, as the pinhole through which Bahrani looks at Davis’ legend can’t help but call attention to both of these men’s respective blind spots.
Of course, self-mythologizing narcissists like Davis have a natural tendency to reframe everything around them, and the constant noise created by such addictively operatic characters helps deflect from the damage they cause; it’s hard to listen for anything else about someone who keeps shooting himself in the stomach, a fact that Davis mastered into a masochistic sales pitch. By the end of this movie, even Davis’ unkempt mustache and humble midwestern twang will seem like the sleight-of-hand of someone who doesn’t want you to know how dangerous he is. Someone who writes off the most terrible consequences of their actions as a series of “inglorious missteps.”
If Bahrani slobbers over the wackier details of his subject’s biography, most of them justify that appetite for eccentricity. It’s not just that Davis’ sold his body armor with a pitch video that split the difference between “I’m not just a member, I’m also a client” and a snuff film, or that he formed such an intense personal connection to the people saved by his product that he went to their weddings and hired them to run his business, it’s that he also staged super 8mm re-creations of those “saves” and became a bonafide cult filmmaker among police nationwide (they adored Davis’ tendency to turn any standoff into unleaded copaganda). His genius for encouraging police to fear the people they swore to protect helped David build his product into an empire, and he was busy counting his money to care if the number of civilians they shot was positively correlated to his profits.
That ghoulishness would only metastasize further as Second Chance seized on every opportunity to sell more vests at higher margins, a familiar pattern that eventually left the police who wore Davis’ body armor with the same false promise of security they provided to their communities. “His story is a metaphor for the country,” Bahrani observes, proud to have found someone who so perfectly illustrates the extent to which capitalism is only interested in protecting itself.
Davis is always eager to dig his own grave, and Bahrani is all too happy to hand him a shovel and point him towards the right plot of dirt. “2nd Chance” has so much fun shaking its head at its subject that it struggles to accommodate the more sobering perspectives of the people whose lives Davis upended on his way to the top. The sweet-natured ex-cop who became Davis’ right-hand man after a Second Chance vest saved his life, the wife of a cop whose husband was unlucky enough to be wearing a later model, and a local kid who became a pet interest of Davis’ after a high school prank went wrong (this part is especially murky) are among the many victims whose suffering is flattened into its most basic facts. Davis’ first wife shows up just long enough to suggest that Second Chance was all a glorified excuse for some man-children to play with artillery — apparently Davis’ cult of personality turned an entire town into a military-grade firing range? — but we’re left to guess at his true impact on her life.
“2nd Chance” makes good on its title down the home stretch as Bahrani shifts his focus to the various regrets that Davis’ former supporters are desperate to share with him, a heartbreaking change of pace borne from the very real empathy the filmmaker surely has for these folks. And yet, the movie itself is so transparently determined to cut a particular image of its main character that even the most indelible of these people feel like human props. Their capacity for repentance — to acknowledge painful choices, and not just “inglorious missteps” — is what separates them from men like Davis, but even in that light they’re still lost in his shadow.
“2nd Chance” premiered at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival.
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