Revisiting Toby Keith's Beer for My Horses
The headliner at Donald Trump’s inauguration co-wrote and starred in an abysmal 2008 vanity project that nonetheless presents an occasionally interesting self-portrait of red state America.
Almost a decade before starring tonight at an inaugural event for Donald Trump, country standout Toby Keith starred in a 2008 film called Beer for My Horses, a cinematic endeavor that managed the exceptional feat of earning 0 percent on the review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes. To be fair, this score was based on a statistically inadequate total of six reviews. But having belatedly caught up with the film, I can attest that its critical reputation is well-earned.
The movie was written by Keith and the comedian/country singer Rodney Carrington (who also co-stars), and it is the sole feature directed by Michael Salomon, a music-video director known for his frequent collaborations with Keith. Given the extreme lack of relevant expertise on hand—that is to say, acting, screenwriting, and filmmaking—it is perhaps no surprise that the movie is a generally inept undertaking: by turns, a comedy that isn’t funny, a drama devoid of tension, and an action movie in sore need of a shot of epinephrine.
It’s a pity, given that Keith is a likable onscreen presence; he harbors political views more eclectic than those generally associated with him (he opposed the Iraq war, for instance, and has been supportive of Barack Obama on occasion); and his own songs typically display more wit than anything in this movie (e.g., High maintenance woman don’t want no maintenance man; or, I ain’t as good as I once was, but I’m as good once as I ever was).
But Beer for My Horses is nonetheless a moderately interesting cultural document, especially at this inaugural moment, because it is very clearly presented as an entertainment of, by, and for red state America. It features an earnest, low-key amiability, but one that is generally reserved for its white-male protagonists and that occasionally veers unexpectedly into the bizarre and reprehensible. (I should perhaps note here that I am a lifelong blue-stater with only a passing familiarity with Toby Keith; but my wife, with whom I watched the movie, is a big-time Keith fan who grew up all across the South.)
The movie borrows its title from Keith’s 2003 number-one hit with Willie Nelson, who also has a small role. (The chorus: Whiskey for my men, beer for my horses…) Alas, there are no horses in the film, let alone beer-drinking ones. The overlap between song and movie is essentially limited to the thematic, a kind of inchoate enthusiasm for “law and order” that carries the usual political, cultural, and racial undertones. (The movie’s dispiriting tagline, “Vigilante Justice: It’s a Real Blast!”, does little to quell accusations—denied by Keith—that the initial song was effectively pro-lynching.)
Keith stars as “Rack” Racklin, a deputy sheriff in the hamlet of Mangum, Oklahoma, and Carrington plays his pal Lonnie—also a deputy, albeit a vastly less capable one. The two enjoy a life of relatively low-effort policing (mediating domestic disputes, etc.) until their lives are beset by a pair of misfortunes: First, Rack’s lawnmower is damaged. (This takes place when his longtime, live-in girlfriend—played in a barely-there cameo by Gina Gershon—leaves him; one of the movie’s running gags is that everyone in town considers the mower the greater loss.) And second, on a routine surveillance outing, the boys wind up arresting a Mexican drug dealer whose brother is the head of a major cartel.
Conveniently for Rack, the true love of his life, Annie (Claire Forlani), has just moved back to town from Chicago. Less conveniently, after their first reunion date, she is kidnapped by the aforementioned cartel lord, who promises to kill her unless his brother is released from jail. Avatars of American manhood that they are, Rack and Lonnie drive to Mexico to rescue her.
Again, more interesting than the plot—this may be the definition of a low hurdle—is the cultural signage that the movie consistently offers for display. There’s a scene set in a honky tonk to establish that Rack and Lonnie are the kind of guys who hang out at a honky tonk; a pig-hunting scene to establish that they’re the kind of guys who hunt pigs; and a scene at church to establish that they’re nominally churchgoing, even if Lonnie gets in trouble for snoring during the service. Rack and Lonnie take the latter’s brand-new truck to Mexico, in order to underline just how holy an object a brand-new truck is. (It is not the only subplot to make this point.) And Annie usefully reminds us that her life in the “big city”—the phrase is used constantly—was inferior to life in small-town Mangum.
Still more interesting are the details the film advertises less aggressively, in particular the decline of the institution of marriage. It’s not only Rack: Lonnie, too, is in a longstanding, living-together relationship that has not progressed to the nuptial phase. (Another comic gem: Lonnie is convinced that if he ever does propose to his girlfriend, she’ll immediately get fat.) Even when Rack is asked whether he intends to marry Annie—again, the very much all-caps LOVE OF HIS LIFE—he replies, “yeah,” before quickly adding, “maybe someday.” There are also hints of the rural methamphetamine epidemic that has since become so familiar: Rack and Lonnie arrest their dealer when he’s attempting to steal fertilizer to process meth; and the movie opens with the horrifically prescient song “Choctaw Bingo,” by alt-country singer James McMurtry (son of Larry).
And then there’s Ted Nugent. On some level, there probably had to be. The singer-turned-conservative-activist plays “Skunk,” another Mangum deputy and buddy of Rack and Lonnie’s. Nugent has spent the latter portion of his career desperately publicizing himself as a kind of American ur-male (bow hunting!) and it’s a little hard to tell whether his performance here is an over-the-top extension of that effort or a self-mocking sendup of the same. The first time we see him, he is sharpening a hunting knife on a whetstone. Soon after, he has shot an arrow into a bad guy’s ass and then fired two machine pistols into the air as the power chords of “Cat Scratch Fever” jangle in the background. You be the judge.
If that was all there was to it, Beer for My Horses would remain a nearly instantly forgettable misfire, too ineptly made even to truly offend. There are several jokes about a farting dog and several more about a dozy, doughnut-eating cop; after executing an underling, the drug lord even drags out that stalest of chestnuts, “Good help is so hard to find.” But despite its generally genial, boys-will-be-boys air, there are a few scenes and storylines that lodge in the mind unpleasantly. Begin (as Donald Trump did) with the Mexicans. The small-time criminal and his cartel-boss brother both have the same handful of characterological modes: maniacal screaming, diabolical leering, and—when confronted with Rack’s robust American mettle—whimpering like children. This may be the first time that I’ve ever felt a murderous drug lord was treated unfairly onscreen.
A low-grade fog of sexism and homophobia hovers consistently over the proceedings: the lawnmower that’s more important than a girlfriend; the worry that marriage is a license for obesity; a prostitute character who seems to exist solely to be lusted after (by Lonnie) and insulted (by Rack). And I’m not sure the movie goes ten minutes without a grade-school-level gay taunt: “your boyfriend,” “you girls,” etc., etc.
But there are two scenes that truly stand out, in part because they are self-contained and generally unrelated to the larger story. The first is awful but straightforward: As Rack and Lonnie are driving to Mexico, a jeep full of young women pulls up beside them and, for no reason at all, one of them lifts her shirt to expose her breasts. Actually, not quite for no reason at all: The scene is set to a song by Carrington (a.k.a., the co-writer and co-star), titled “Show Them to Me.” Beer For My Horses does not treat us to the full opus, but we do get a representative taste: Unclasp your bra and set those puppies free / They’d look a whole lot better without that sweater baby / I’m sure you’ll agree / If you got two fun bags / Show them to me. Thank goodness Bob Dylan has given us a precedent for bestowing the Nobel Prize for Literature on songwriters.
But the worst scene in the film—and the one that I fear will linger in memory—is another that takes place during Rack and Lonnie’s journey into Mexico. Along the way, they pull over at a rest stop. But when they go to the bathroom, who should be there but a handful of black guys (the only ones in the movie, I believe), dressed in what is evidently meant to be a mildly thuggish manner. Because that’s as close as we come to an explanation—well, apart from the fact that one of them is smoking a cigarette—for Rack’s decision to ostentatiously take out his pistol and place it on the urinal as a warning. Apparently, you can’t be too careful with those black people...
Rack completes his business, but Lonnie is still attending to his own in a stall. While he waits for things to loosen up, he decides to start singing “Shout,” the Isley Brothers song subsequently made iconic when Otis Day and the Knights performed it for the boys of Delta Tau Chi in Animal House. And what would you know, but the moment they hear it, the presumptively criminal black guys in the bathroom start singing harmony and dancing!
To recap, in the span of just a few minutes Beer for My Horses suggests that: a) black people should be assumed to be dangerous, even when they haven’t done anything remotely threatening; b) they cease to be dangerous as soon as you invoke their native enthusiasm for music; and c) they especially enjoy performing “Shout” for white people.
Though at least, the movie implicitly reassures, they’re not as bad as Mexicans.