Movie Review: “2nd Chance” – A Memorable American Con Man
By David D’Arcy
In Richard Davis, director Ramin Bahrani has found an old-fashioned cheat, a pot-bellied American hustler worthy of a Mark Twain story.
2nd chance, one of my favorite films at Sundance this year, is Ramin Bahrani’s documentary about a cunning entrepreneur from the heartland of the United States who bounces back from a financial meltdown by coming up with a product, a body armor, that saves lives . Until it sinks.
Richard Davis is a gifted salesman who was also a relentless liar, a con artist who endangered the lives of those who trusted him, not to mention the lives of his customers. The risk is a serious understatement when the product being sold to the police is a defective body armor.
[Or an airplane. At this year’s Sundance, Rory Kennedy’s documentary Downfall: The Case Against Boeing explored the deceit behind a deadly tragedy. Corporate executives were found by investigators to have concealed crucial operating details about its aggressively highly-marketed Boeing 737 Max from the pilots flying it. Two of those planes crashed, killing everyone aboard. The Boeing executives who tried to explain that maneuver lacked Davis’s charm.]
In Davis, director Ramin Bahrani has found an old-fashioned fraud, a pot-bellied American crook worthy of a Mark Twain story. In a painfully short festival of comedy, 2n/a Luck helped fill the void.
Davis was a Detroit businessman who owned two pizzerias that burned down in 1975, at a time when much of that city was burning. Broke, and without insurance (he says), Davis turns to his other vocation, to invent. Davis saw how crime ravaged Detroit, with gun violence increasing every day. His solution was a bulletproof vest, which he made out of synthetic fabric in his basement. Developing the product meant he had to shoot himself while wearing the vest in order to test it. He did it 192 times, according to his own calculations. If you don’t believe in your own product, he seemed to say, who else will?
Yes, you can see this test on the screen. Davis loved to film himself.
A pivotal event reinforced Davis’ commitment to producing a vest that would protect potential gunshot victims. Deputy Aaron Westrick wore the vest while pursuing a suspect in Detroit – the cop escaped death when the suspect shot him. Westrick would defend Davis and work for him, until too much truth about his boss surfaced.
With a tip for every occasion, Davis could, as they say, make friends and influence people. And that heart of Falstaff was also making money on his product. He built a factory to make Second Chance Armor Inc. vests in quiet Central Lake, northern Michigan. He became the main employer, essentially owning the town.
Eventually, Davis’ self-control frayed. He left his first wife. He targeted people who opposed him. His vests have been shown to have flaws. A police officer died while wearing the vest and others were injured, as the money continued to flow.
Even his story about the pizza fires turned out to have some serious holes in it.
Still, the jokes kept coming, even as Davis’ world crumbled.
Bahrani discreetly lets the eccentric self-taught and self-destructive American do the talking. Davis’ weird tales seem to have been told by the weird characters in Errol Morris films – Fred A. Leuchter, the electric chair designer (and Holocaust denier), or the self-proclaimed fabulist Joyce McKinney in Tabloid (2010), or Donald Rumsfeld, another Morris doc subject who told his own share of tall tales. We are still living with the consequences of some of them.
America’s nearly endless array of weird characters is familiar territory for Bahrani. Before writing and directing his screen adaptation of the wild and sprawling Indian novel The white tigerBahrani made small, closely watched documentaries that were built on improbable or overwhelming real-life situations – a struggling food vendor on Wall Street in Man pushing cart (2005), two boys on the lawless unpaved streets of Queens’ Willets Point neighborhood (now defunct) in Chop Shop (2007), and a Senegalese immigrant driving a taxi in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, in Goodbye Solo (2008). He was as ready as any filmmaker or the self-mythologizing of Richard Davis.
As soon as we meet Davis, we see – what else? – footage of him shooting himself to test prototypes of his vest. These filmed performances, of Davis turning a gun on himself and surviving, are an old twist on border magic shows where a performer sees an assistant (usually a woman) in half. Davis understood that performance drove sales; he made his own films to sell the vests. One such effort lasted eight hours. But let’s not forget that the bullets were real. And you can just hear someone ask, “If a guy is out to shoot himself that many times, how could he be lying?”
The second-chance vest was, quite rightly, a huge media story: the creation of any successful product that saves lives would be. The downfall of a local hero also rallied the media. Still, Davis’ artisanal charisma was just as huge an invitation to cover. The people he betrayed and who turned against him (Westrick worked with law enforcement and wore a wire to tape it), still speak fondly of the man. I confess that, without liking or admiring Davis, I can’t wait to watch 2n/a Luck again and see him charm anyone who wants to listen to him.
The American landscape is full of local rogues who make fortunes and attract fans. It helped that Davis, both columnist and subject, was an improviser who invented himself as he went.
It’s hard to resist the stories in this story – a fraudulent “life-saving” product that failed at key moments, a dead cop wearing a vest and his tearful young widow, the religious conversion of the man who went to jail for shooting Aaron Westrick (and, as Westrick did, got a doctorate), Davis’ ex-wives talking up a storm, money from buyers of the vests around the world and forgiveness – yes, forgiveness in Central Lake, a quiet place except for Davis’ shots. Move over, Keillor Garrison.
Forgiveness is the surprisingly heartening final note of a film about a man willing (if not determined) to sell faulty bulletproof vests to the police and ready to abandon a town where he was effectively the sole source of income.
With Davis’ downfall comes the collapse of the second-chance vest, with his downfall being the triumph of facts and evidence over the sales pitch. The factory where the vests were made closed in 2009. Never admitting his guilt, in 2018 Davis confiscated his assets and settled a government lawsuit alleging he made “false statements.”
Still, for those still drawn to Davis, the truth wasn’t enough to dim his star power. When love competes with mere facts, there is pressure, as Bahrani notes (quoting John Ford’s book The man who shot Liberty Valance), to print the legend.
Fighting American fraud and corruption is one thing. Fighting national credulity, as we have seen with Davis and other charlatans, is a bigger problem.
2n/a Luck somehow received little media coverage at Sundance, although it has now been acquired by Netflix, where you can already see Bahrani’s ambitious project White Tiger.
David D’Arcy lives in New York. For years he was a programmer for the Haifa International Film Festival in Israel. He writes about art for numerous publications, including the art diary. He produced and co-wrote the documentary Portrait of Wally (2012), about the fight over a painting looted by the Nazis found at the Museum of Modern Art in Manhattan.