“A gentle man in a brutal business”
Those are the opening words of Sean Pamphilon and Royce Toni’s striking Ricky Williams biopic, and they go a long way towards telling you all you need to know about the enigmatic Dolphins plowshare.
From the very beginning, Ricky Williams was just someone who never quite fit. In the long, storied history of the NFL, there have been multitudes of players and coaches who were a bit off the wall, but Ricky Williams remains the only person in my memory that legitimately seemed to have stumbled into the wrong profession.
That’s not to say he was never capable between the lines. The film does a fantastic job of concisely summing up Williams’ prowess as a ball carrier, both at Texas and in the NFL. I had nearly forgotten how much of an absolute stud he was when he won the rushing title in 2002.
The key to the film’s success lies in its unflinching intimacy. Williams essentially granted Pamphilon carte blanche to document his life in 2004, just as his life was beginning to become very turbulent. The most striking scenes in the film are those in which Williams is interviewed while in the depths of his self-imposed exile from the NFL. Possibly (Well, almost definitely) high on marijuana, Williams is just so innately watchable in these exchanges that you can’t help but hang on his every word.
The close personal relationship between the filmmaker and the main subject troubled me a bit, but those doubts were quickly quelled as Pamphilon repeated pushed Williams to be completely forthcoming and often challenged his increasingly odd world view. The most noteworthy of these exchanges was the moment when Pamphilon posited the notion that Williams took amphetamines to ease his comeback to the league in 2006.
From the outset, the film set a goal to give meaning and depth to a man that so many were quick to dismiss. This was abundantly clear in the film’s opening moments, when the image Williams idly strumming his guitar in his one-bedroom rental house was juxtaposed with various sound bytes from the screaming-head blowhard sports media that was becoming so prevalent right around the time of Williams’ demise. I think it’s safe to say the film achieved these goals fairly successfully, as it became abundantly clear that Williams’ reasons for fleeing the NFL had less to do with smoking pot for hours on end and more to do with becoming a more well-rounded and enlightened human being.
While one could still very easily dismiss Williams’ actions as “selfish” and his commitment to holistic medicine as “hippie pseudo-science”, the film at the very least allows you to arrive at those opinions by being presented with the full slate of information.
As fascinating as Williams was as a subject, almost equally as such were the vignettes with his friends and loved ones. I’ve long been a fan of the work of Dan LeBatard, and his unique perspective on Williams and his behavior was in full effect, as he often had the most insightful thoughts of all the subjects. I also enjoyed the discussions with Williams’ life partner (and, by the end of the film, his wife) Kristin. Women in her position–one mother of many that an athlete has burdened with an illegitimate child–have every reason to be cold and bitter towards that athlete, but she honestly and truly loves Williams as much as the day she met him, even going so far as to say that she wished that sometimes she did not love him.
The revelation of sexual abuse early in Williams’ childhood was complete news to me, and bringing new information to light ought to be the chief goal of any documentary, as I detailed in last week’s Silly Little Game review.
The film ends on a decidedly upbeat note, with Williams again thriving in the NFL and becoming a better father. However, the thing that remains so intriguing about Williams is that he plays like a something deeper than your average redemption story, as his earlier transgressions seem less like “rock bottom” from which he had to extricated and more like a necessary part of the evolution of one of the most fascinating athletes in recent memory.