Depth of a Salesman

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When you first see Michael Bennett at work, you could mistake him for a revival preacher: sweating, pacing in his crisp vest and raving hoarsely into a microphone. Bennett is actually a car salesman — not just any car salesman, mind you, but the Slasher. Hired by local car lots — at $12,000 a pop — he flies across the country to set up inventory-clearing extravaganzas, his arrival heralded by obnoxious radio commercials. ("Armed with a savings chainsaw! Slicing high prices!") Like an itinerant evangelist, he rolls into town, sets up his tent and spends 72 hours infusing the customers with the fiery spirit of automobilism.

For the documentary Slasher (IFC, June 19, 10 p.m. E.T.), director John Landis (The Blues Brothers) spends a week with Bennett as he organizes and executes one such blowout. En route to the airport, Bennett struggles to remember where he's going — Memphis, Tenn.--while an assistant preps him on the local vernacular. ("Y'all is singular. All y'all is plural.") Once on the scene, though, the Slasher — a wiry, nervous guy, like Billy Bob Thornton with Tom Waits' rasp — thrums like a racing engine. "This is a show to me," he says, "not a sale." He struts around the lot wielding a toy chainsaw. There are pretty showgirls, a DJ and the "$88 car." (Find that unmarked beater, discounted from $1,695, and you get to take it home for fourscore and change.)


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That gimmick is a big draw with the lot's low-income clientele — black families, white guys with Confederate-flag license plates — who are stretching their budgets severely. Yet Bennett feels he's giving them something: a sense of victory. If they're going to get taken anyway, let them walk away feeling they did some taking too. "What's a good deal?" he asks. "It's what you think is a good deal."

For all his slickness and charisma, Bennett, at 43, feels tired and old. He misses his wife and kids in California. ("I feel like I'm just paying storage for my family.") Pacing around his dank hotel room, a strip club and dive restaurants, he rants about the travel, the hours, the new technology. "All of a sudden, everyone's a negotiator," he says. "'The Internet said I could get it for this.' Yeah, well, right-click your mouse and see if it'll deliver the car, buddy. 'Cause it ain't gonna sell you the car. I am."

At times Landis works too hard to make his subject more entertaining. When Bennett talks about the reputation of car salesmen as liars, the director glibly inserts a montage of quotes from Presidents ("I am not a crook," etc.). But mostly Slasher lets Bennett and the customers tell their stories, abetted by only crisp editing and a sound track of Stax soul tunes. It's an acute yet nonjudgmental picture of a crusade that will continue long after the buyers drive home in their sputtering purchases and the Slasher heads for another town to preach his American gospel of hope and redemption for one low monthly payment. Can he get an amen?