This story of a trans boy is complicated by his family, and has the setting of a western.
Vast Montana mountain ranges, shotgun standoffs with the sheriff, horse-napping, and starlight camping. Not what you’d expect from an indie drama centred on an 11-year-old trans boy; his loving, devoted father struggling with bipolar disorder; and his traditionalist, unaccepting mother. Yet writer-director Anna Kerrigan’s 2021 neo-western feature Cowboys delivers tense action and poignant characters set against the backdrop of the jaw-dropping Montana wilderness.
The film follows Joe, played with impressive refinement by newcomer Sascha Knight, and his father Troy (Steve Zahn, in a career-best performance), the titular cowboys on the run from Joe’s mother (an excellent against-type turn from comedian Jillian Bell), who struggles to accept that Joe is her son rather than her daughter. The central cast is rounded out by Anne Dowd, playing the stoic yet conflicted detective assigned to their case. Dowd’s performance is magnificent, portraying intense feeling in only a few lines and powerful glances, offering hints at a level of depth that the character cannot afford to betray. In many ways the subtleness of the character is emblematic of the film as a whole, the beauty lies in what goes unsaid and, with its non-linear structure, that can be a lot.
Instead of moralistic aspersions and the distressing, high-tension argument scenes which many coming-out films fetishistically revel in, Cowboys deftly utilises the tropes of the western genre to tell you everything you need to know. The varying shades of moral grey are intuited through a playful reverence to the genre flicks of Clint Eastwood and John Wayne, all the while remaining fresh and not at all derivative. For a film so tangibly rooted in homage to westerns, it is decidedly unique.
Part of this uniqueness undoubtedly stems from its subject matter, which is handled with respect and commitment, and the fact that Joe is played by a transgender actor is testament to this. Knight’s casting allows him to imbue the character with true experience, and this shines through in the film’s most emotional scenes. The portrayal of bipolar disorder is revealing as well — Zahn’s character is neither a helpless victim nor a glamourous genius prone to poor decision-making who can snap back to “normal” as soon as the plot demands it (Homeland, I’m looking at you). Instead, both are people first, and tangible, flawed ones at that, which elevates the film from a simple social issue drama into a rich character driven narrative.
Aside from the excellent characterisation, the film is unique in its attention to detail. John Wakamayama Carey’s cinematography is indulgent, with lingering, almost voyeuristic mid-shots of the landscape, and more often of a stunning white horse. The colours of the film are muted greens and blues, which create a mood of anticipation, exactly as if at any second the heavens will open, and it will never stop raining again. The costume design is simple yet deliberate and effective; the styling is instrumental in creating that western feel and is vital in constructing the tense atmosphere between the family members. The combination of the dreamy cinematography and retro cowboy aesthetics give the film a timeless quality, quite divorced from its modern setting. The characters all use flip phones – whether it is because they are poor, or because the film is set a decade in the past is left to the discretion of the viewer. The score is sparse, and again retains that signature western feel with precision. All these elements point to a film which is technically accomplished and fundamentally well-made.
Cowboys will likely be compared to 2019’s Peanut Butter Falcon — both films feature troubled middle-aged men with younger companions on the run with western feels and powerful ties to their settings. Incidentally, both also have incredible river scenes. However, while Peanut Butter Falcon has a dry yet hilarious wit and an all-round light tone, Cowboys is darker, and more involved in the suffering of its characters. Peanut Butter Falcon’s Zak is blissfully unaware of the gravity of his situation, Cowboys’ Joe is being crushed by it. This tonal distinction separates the two features beyond the need for comparison.
Overall, Cowboys is a stunning work by auteur Anna Kerrigan, who deftly both defies and revels in the western genre to produce a heartfelt and visually magnificent film. My only gripe is that, at a mere 84 minutes, there isn’t more of it.