Labor of Love


The Outside Circle: a Movie of the Modern West is director Craig Rullman's dusty Valentine to the Cowboy Life. It's a documentary, his first film, and may be his only one. But he cares so deeply about his subject that it’s hard to imagine any other one quite measuring up.

Originally conceived as a profile of Len Babb, a painter who emulates the style of turn-of-the-century artist Charlie Russell, Mr. Rullman expanded it to include folks like the Murphy family, fifth generation Oregon ranchers, and Victoria Jackson, a Paiute-Shoshone rodeo champion whose family legacy reaches back 14,000 years.

The word "romantic" is bandied about quite a bit. Also said often: "pride," "ornate," and "where I’m meant to be."

In the 1940s and 50s, the Cowboy Myth thrived: American popular culture was all Stetsons, six-shooters, and spurs. When cinema was born, cowboys came off the prairie, went to Hollywood and exploited their adventures. They gave us heroic figures real and invented, from Hopalong Cassidy and Roy Rogers to Gene Autry and Wyatt Earp. In the early days of TV, cowboys were ubiquitous. Their presence was so strong, it felt as if they would never ride off into the sunset. These days, of course, Westerns in any form are few and far between.

Mr. Rullman, with the able assistance of cinematographer Samuel Pyke, fills The Outside Circle with languorous, quasi-ghostly images: vague silhouettes glimpsed through the haze kicked up by horses, indistinct as in a dream. To be a cowboy is grimier and harder than those fancy Hollywood types would suggest—one talking head reminds us that they were "common laborers," members of the working class. Troublemakers. One wag even refers to them as "Hell's Angels on horseback."

Mr. Rullman and the subjects of his interviews mourn the passing of this "honest, humble" period, but as a film The Outside Circle is lightweight. It’s redundant and superficial. Images and voices say it, then say it again, going in circles, like a ranch hand guiding his herd. With all the public domain material out there, it relies on a few old photos and grainy home movies to take us into the past. We're left with vestiges, and a sense of the "obligation to represent an American ideal" these folks feel.

But The Outside Circle is genuine. Give him that. Mr. Rullman's sincerity is his strength. We care because he does.

The Outside Circle is big skies, sun dappled dreams, and cherished bygones. It's a noble project, heartfelt and worth seeing.


The Outside Circle, a Movie of the Modern West. Written and directed by Craig Rullman. 2023. On digital platforms. 77 minutes.

Add new comment