You're not likely to see a more inspiring documentary this year than "Bending Steel," the story of one Chris Schoeck, an unassuming New York gentleman with one secret passion. Schoeck is a curious character, an admitted introvert with a slight stutter whom you can tell had to be coaxed to be on camera. When he travels the subway system, bundled up for the cold weather or clad in a workout t-shirt, he's just another fellow on the train, with his casual Irish boyishness on a face that doesn't seem to smile easily. And then you see in his warehouse, standing over thick metal beams, and his gentle hands seize a steel beam. Suddenly, a bit of exertion, and it bends. He isn't Chris Schoeck. He's Chris "Wonder" Schoek.
Schoek openly disdains communication with others, claiming he simply isn't interested in other people. But it's the internet that unites him with Chris Rider, aka Hairculese, an Oldetime Strongman who wants to bring feats of power back to Coney Island with his beard-based stunts. Together, they train, Schoeck eventually finding his way into a group of strongman legends and up-and-comers, a veritable Justice League of muscle. Most of them are heavily tattooed and massive, often unkempt, which is what makes the eye drift back towards clean-shaven, quiet Chris. For once, you can finally see Chris motivated to work within a unit: we never see extensive footage of him interacting with women, and he doesn't seem to have any friends, despite his polite nature and easygoing attitude.
The picture takes great pains to portray an interesting conflict found within artists: the need to create and the need to perform, both coexisting within each other. Chris has no affinity for strangers, and almost concedes that its distracting to his work. But he'll need to develop showmanship in order to make audiences come back for his feats of strength. It's no wonder the Oldetime Strongmen have a difficult duty in the modern day, as we see these miraculous abilities in films and television all the time thanks to contemporary special effects. When Chris arrives at a hipster bar open mic to test his banter, his somewhat-antagonistic stage manner lands with a hilarious thud playing to an audience of super-ironic 100lb bar-goers. Perhaps Chris should have tried to bend them.
"Bending Steel" could have been more lightweight, perhaps even comedic, in depicting these gargantuan tasks onscreen, and the thought of awkward Chris finding a rapport with audience could have been used for cruel, awkwardly-edited laughs. Fortunately director Dave Carroll doesn't go this route at all. "Bending Steel" is startlingly cinematic, the compelling visuals capturing Chris' fairly lonely world of steel manipulation in solitude with a sense of awe and power. Older footage of earlier strongmen set a tone by being treated with mythic reverence and respect: these are the heroes of yesterday, and Schoeck's admittedly un-cinematic skill (he lunges over and his face disappears as we see him twist and bend each new object, even after he physically "cheats" to the audience through more photogenic postures) is seen as a more specific contemporary approach to these abilities.
What lingers is the unspoken idea that Schoeck finds a family in those pushing him to improve. At one point, he attempts to bend a coin with his teeth, and a cohort assures him that he knows Chris can complete the task, but Chris does not, a sort of supernatural show of faith one could expect from a real, honest friend. This is contrasted with Chris' distant relationship to his elderly parents, who seem confused as to what Chris is doing, and how it works are a profession. We don't hear them asking this, but it feels like every "but how are you going to monetize this?" conversation you've ever had with a loved one. When Chris opens his heart to ask his parents to come watch his first show, they're heartbreakingly non-committal. Love isn't the question: it's the inability to see the appeal of this activity without glimpsing it onstage.
The doc eventually develops a compelling but nicely underplayed suspense regarding the first show. Schoeck has inexplicably opted to use the opening night as fuel to finally bend a two-inch thick piece of steel that has taunted him for months, and the question is whether he can manage this feat, gaining the love and support of an audience he only pretends to understand. "Bending Steel" climaxes in a way that would shake even the most hardened viewer: you'd never expect a film about the continual bending of steel to become quite so touching. To not shed a tear at Chris' final stand is a herculean (not Hairculean) task is a near-impossibility. At one point, Chris speaks to the camera about the tall tale of a trigger that allows someone to reach their peak strength, something that motivates them to surpass their previous limits. For some audience members, it may just be this inspirational film that provides that very trigger. [A]