"Friday Night Lights" has an arresting poster, probably the best for any movie all year. Three high school football players stand side by side on the 50-yard line, helmeted, with their backs to the viewer. They're facing the far-off, packed stands and two floodlight towers. The men clasp hands, and they all have a leg that's bent at the knee and pulled slightly back.
What's striking about the picture is its symmetry and ambiguity. The men could be dancers, bowing at a curtain call. When exactly in a game does a moment like this happen? There's no football, no cheerleaders, no grunting, no blood, sweat, or tears, just that image, which distills from a bruising sport this note of elegance.
In the movie, the scene from the poster lasts for two seconds and is a lot less ethereal, but the film itself is often just as lyrical, if more melancholy. It contains all the stuff so beautifully absent from the photo, the essential things like testosterone, referees, and the game itself. But it also bears something you rarely experience in a football movie. "Friday Night Lights" has a soul.
Set in the Odessa, Texas, of 1988, a place of ubiquitous oil drills and a seeming cultural barrenness, the movie recounts the true tale of the Permian Panthers and the team's quest for another state title. It walks the standard path that most underdog sports stories take to reach a kind of ragged glory. There's the cocky star running back (Derek Luke), the shy quarterback (Lucas Black, grown up and quite good) with a sick mom (Connie Cooper), and the butterfingers receiver (Garrett Hedlund) with the abusive, drunk dad (Tim McGraw, the country star). Billy Bob Thornton, compassionate in a cooperative hairpiece, plays the coach, and here and there we see Connie Britton as his supportive wife.
There are recruiters, unseen commentators running play by plays, lots of time in the locker room, and the nagging desperation of a town with a population that's counting on the Panthers to make it to the state championships. There's not much in "Friday Night Lights" that you haven't ever seen or couldn't have imagined. Relative to most Hollywood sports movies, however, it just feels new.
The film is based on the moving book the landfaring journalist H.G. "Buzz" Bissinger wrote more than a decade ago. Director Peter Berg, working with expensive-looking production, draws out these lives so you can see how the sport, as it's typically said of Lone Star football, is the regional religion. (In one of the opening scenes, a mother runs plays with her son at breakfast.)
You rarely sense the screenplay, which Berg wrote with David Aaron Cohen, pushing characters to act, although Luke's performance might be too showy, even for a gridiron diva. But after his character is injured in the season's first game and he realizes his life in football might be over, Luke has a weepy collapse that actually fills you with sadness for his busted dreams.
The picture toys with time, skipping from the present to a few seconds of something that happened an hour or a day before. This doesn't deepen the meaning, but it does lend considerable atmosphere, which is further enriched by the excellent drums-and-guitar score from the art band Explosions in the Sky. It's rumbling, steroidal, and wistful -- sometimes during the same game. Berg's impressionistic approach (a flurry of scenes in the service of a mood) finally answers what millions of men have probably been dying to know: how a Terrence Malick football movie might go. "Friday Night Lights" is very much in the plaintive key of Malick's World War II ballad "The Thin Red Line." This movie is just shorter and less sensual.
Berg once played the bad-boy doctor on "Chicago Hope," then he made 1998's morally disgusting "Very Bad Things." Surprisingly, his second movie, last year's muscular, playful "The Rundown," showed improvement: It stuck Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson in the jungle. "Friday Night Lights" is a logical next choice: He seems to be making a name for himself as a director of commercial movies for extremely virile yet openly sensitive men. He doesn't have Malick's artistry in him (he's too transparent), but he's not nearly the bullying hack Tony Scott ("Man on Fire") is either.
In fact, he seems on the verge of revitalizing the male weepie. When the star quarterback throws a spiral to a gang of eager football-whipped kids, it feels like he's just tossed them a very hard, very fast leather bouquet.
Wesley Morris can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Friday Night Lights