The tiny city of Dalton, Georgia, has left a large footprint in the daily lives of millions who most wouldn’t have stopped for a second to consider. Well, it’s probably more appropriate to say that millions have left large footprints in Dalton’s biggest export: this city is the “Carpet Capital of the World.” With 85% of carpets in the USA having been made there, the industry’s made it one of America’s most prosperous locations for several decades. It shouldn’t be a surprise that many an entrepreneur have attempted to establish themselves there, though that easy entry point into the American Dream has become more complicated in recent years––something made abundantly clear in Carpet Cowboys, the feature directorial debut of documentarians Emily MacKenzie and Noah Collier.

During post-production, John Wilson––pop culture’s pre-eminent chronicler of seemingly mundane Americana––boarded the project as executive producer, and it’s clear that his fascinations mirror those of the directors. The subjects they follow could easily have slotted into any of the three seasons of How to, even if they aren’t as overtly eccentric as, say, the passionate Avatar fan club Wilson embedded himself in during one memorable episode. As with the unassuming guest stars of that series, MacKenzie and Collier utilize their subjects as emblems for the current state of America. It makes for an ultimately uneven documentary; you can sense, as Carpet Cowboys plays, that the pair lost interest in following a far broader range of people within this world to focus instead on one man whose life trajectory proved the best fit for a state-of-the-nation address.

This was, it should be noted, the correct decision, as nobody else within Carpet Cowboys is quite so attention-grabbing as Scottish expat Roderick James, a freelance textile designer-turned-self-styled entrepreneur who crossed the Atlantic to get into this lucrative industry, only to find himself constantly in pursuit of other get-rich-quick schemes. After several talking-head interviews explaining the cultural importance of this industry to Dalton, as well as some intermittently amusing visuals of factory employees at work (a comedically overlong take of two men testing out a new carpet almost justifies the lack of initial focus on the one subject who comes to dominate), the arrival of James sends a jolt of electricity through the film. In real time, it’s easy to sense the documentarians dramatically shifting their initial plans for their directorial debut to place him right at the heart of it––even if it means their movie soon becomes more intriguing the further it strays from the industry that was to be their main point of focus.

Like many expats, James fully embraced an American identity upon arrival in the States, proudly proclaiming himself a cowboy, permanently branching a Stetson atop his head. One of the more intriguing, unspoken aspects of Carpet Cowboys is how this countryfied persona, a symbol of the American Dream, unquestionably remains synonymous with his personality even as he struggles to maintain success within his newfound home. Described by Wilson as viewing a small American town “through the lens of the carpet industry,” the documentary is at its strongest when showing how the domination of a handful of conglomerates have made it harder for budding entrepreneurs to find success in this world, and how this small city is something of an albatross around your neck if you want to achieve greatness in any other way. This is why those moments straying from any talk of carpets, where the industry synonymous with the town becomes an unspoken aspect in the background, are the most powerful.

Roderick James is an intriguing subject because he doesn’t have delusions of grandeur that would be easy to poke fun at, and the film never castigates the patently ridiculous idea of a Scottish man identifying as a cowboy. Carpet Cowboys is all the better for this approach, constantly finding an underlying melancholy within sequences that should play out as straightforward cringe comedy. Take James’ plan to write a jingle for a new form of glue designed by an 11-year-old from Dalton who appeared on an episode of Shark Tank. The child’s disinterest in hearing an extended country song being performed right before him, and the middle-aged enterpriser doing his best to try convincing him it’s right for the product, does more to illustrate the changing of the tides at how to make it in this town than any talking head running down the history of Dalton’s carpet industry ever could. I imagine a lesser filmmaker would milk this awkward set-up for laughs; for MacKenzie and Collier it’s another perfect illustration of the desperation that any budding businessman would have when a wider industry starts becoming more fenced-off to newcomers.

Carpet Cowboys would ultimately be a much stronger film if it was entirely focused on James and those in his direct orbit; his struggles and eventual attempts to relocate speak more to the state of the industry and the American Dream in a recession-ravaged nation than MacKenzie and Collier could have ever predicted. It’s rendered uneven by the length of runtime he’s afforded against other subjects, all of whom are fascinating figures in and of themselves but whose dramatic arcs simply lack the same symbolic power.

Carpet Cowboys opens at NYC’s Metrograph at August 25 and expands.

Grade: B-

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