Friday Night Lights: Ralph Nelson
Ty Burr
January 18, 2005 AT 05:00 AM EST

How good is Friday Night Lights? I hate football — bunch of no-neck glandular freaks beating one another up over a bladder, if you ask me — but I love this movie. Adapted from H.G. Bissinger’s book about the 1988 season of the Permian High Panthers in Odessa, Tex., Peter Berg’s film casts a bleakly empathetic eye on small-town grid-iron mania, nailing the region’s economic/emotional flatness and the way 17-year-old boys are treated like gods for three fast months. The game sequences are twitchy and hectic — the climactic contest against a squad of bruisers just plain hurts — but the real pressure cooker is off the field, as quarterback Mike Winchell (Lucas Black) copes with a sense of impending doom, tail-back Don Billingsley (Garrett Hedlund) deals with his drunken nightmare of a sports dad (country star Tim McGraw, gone all ornery), and cocky star player Boobie Miles (Derek Luke) faces life without football.

The boys give good, bone-deep performances, but this is Billy Bob Thornton’s movie, hairpiece and all. As coach Gary Gaines, Thornton stoically end-runs advice from everyone in town and gradually comes to understand what constitutes the truer glory. This is the actor’s most understated performance yet, and it contains trace elements of fear, pride, anger, sadism, sympathy, and gravitas.

The only thing missing from Friday Night Lights is the harsh racial divide that was an essential aspect of Bissinger’s book. It’s there in the meaty 20 minutes of deleted scenes, though, and you have to wonder: Why did Berg cut the spooky, wordless sequence in which Billingsley and a black schoolmate flip each other the bird? That’s laying the ball down one yard shy of the end zone.

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