Best of Doc 2022 review: The Last Hillbilly (Diane Sara Bouzgarrou & Thomas Jenkoe)

“Free-spirited and wandering, The Last Hillbilly is an intimate portrait of a lifestyle on the brink of extinction, dreamily shot and eerily scored, that can hopefully bring nuance to the stereotypes.”

The hillbilly. Ignorant, uneducated, poor, violent, racist, inbred. Stereotypes, relics from the ’30s, a word mired down in the past, says Brian Ritchie, the focal point of French directors Diane Sara Bouzgarrou and Thomas Jenkoe’s documentary The Last Hillbilly. He is talking about the inhabitants of Eastern Kentucky, more specifically the Appalachians. Popular culture has reinforced those stereotypes, ridiculed its people. And it’s all true, he says. But The Last Hillbilly also shows how he is of a dying breed, a fiercely independent spirit that can have poignant ideas and poetic musings. He escapes the caricature, even if he knows he might indeed be ‘the last hillbilly’. Free-spirited and wandering, just like its subject, The Last Hillbilly is an intimate portrait of a lifestyle on the brink of extinction, dreamily shot and eerily scored, that can hopefully bring nuance to the stereotypes.

The film, divided into three chapters which roughly focus on Brian’s family, his community, and the next generation respectively, paints the picture of a rural life that is harsh and simple, torn as it is between the pioneering ways of the past and the modernity of today and tomorrow. The coal mining industry that has left its black mark on the region turned the hillbilly, once a frontiersman who was close to nature, into an everyday citizen, slave to the wage, until the rug was pulled out from under him when the mines closed down. Within three generations, Brian says, the hillbilly went from pioneer to poverty. Through a collage of snapshots of his day-to-day life we get the image of a man who has had the spirit slowly beaten out of him, a man who has seen his heritage wither. “I was the last free kid in America,” he laments to his children and their friends, explaining that the Appalachians were the last part of America to be touched by the modern world, with its internet and its iPhones and its Gameboys that suck the life out of the younger generation. The sadness in his voice is palpable.

Bouzgarrou and Jenkoe’s approach creates a film that is at times meandering, much like the man at its heart. Stray shots of abandoned gloves or dead fish are intermingled with misty images that show the natural beauty of the area, linking a fragmented tapestry of meetings between Brian and assorted members of the community. Meetings that can feel aimless and without form, but that do illustrate life in the Appalachians as a microcosmos, with its high unemployment rate and its youth leaving for greener meadows. The film loses steam somewhat towards the end as it focuses on said youth, quite simply because they lack the charisma that makes Brian such an engaging champion of the hillbilly lifestyle. The Last Hillbilly‘s strength lies in its opening chapter, as he recites from his own poetry in the raised tone of a preacher wanting to instill fear in his flock. The dark and ominous soundtrack by Jay Gambit that at times conjures up an image of standing on the edge of the abyss intensifies Brian’s despair. Shot in Academy ratio, as if to emphasize that we are looking at a bygone era that is all but dead, The Last Hillbilly is at times a tad too scattershot and impressionistic just for the sake of it, but it is an intriguing portrait full of empathy for a man and a way of living that has been portrayed with much less nuance in popular media up until now.