Hit the open trail with the thoughtful drama “Cowboys”

Cowboys Cowboys (Samuel Goldwyn Films)

Giddy on up with Cowboys and its unique take on the hallmarks of the Western genre.

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Gender itself is a societal construct, but in the realm of the Western, it doesn’t just exist but defines the genre. The quintessential Western protagonist is that of The Man with No Name, after all, while John Wayne’s various characters were primarily distinguished by traits largely associated with peak masculinity. Meanwhile, women typically occupy passive roles in these stories reflecting how general society tends to look at ladies. Love interests or workers at a brothel, that’s all women get to do in the majority of Western movies.

These pronounced gender roles can be harmful in some contexts, but they can be useful in others. Ingeniously, Anna Kerrigan’s Cowboys recognizes that gender roles in Westerns and general Southern culture can be handy for trans people. When society is constantly minimizing your gender, what better way to reaffirm your identity than through overt displays of masculinity or femininity? Such displays can be found in traditional Western costumes and storytelling. The signifiers of a genre that have long been a zone for exclusively cis-het perspectives is now an outlet of self-expression for a trans child.

That child is Joe (Sasha Knight), the child of Troy (Steve Zahn) and Sally (Jillian Bell). Identified as female at birth, Joe has slowly but surely been realizing that he’s a guy. It’s a fact that Troy is open to accepting but his mom, Sally, immediately dismisses. Joe’s life becomes even harder after Troy is sent to prison and he only has Sally and her unaccepting nature. Once Troy is released, he and Joe decide to run off to Canada. Like the cowboys in George Strait’s “Cowboys Like Us,” Troy and Joe plan to be “outlaws on the run” with “no regrets, no worries and such.”

Happily, Kerrigan’s screenplay for Cowboys doesn’t fixate the conflict on whether or not Joe is trans. That’s a given from the start, which begins in media res with Troy and Joe on the lam before flashing back to when Joe first came out to Troy. Instead, Cowboys centers its story on the experience of learning that your parents are mortal human beings. When you’re a kid, you view your parents as people who always have everything under control. But there comes a point in your life where you realize that’s not true. A human being stands where you once saw something greater.

Cowboys is a cinematic reflection of that experience, and a fascinating one at that. Troy is accepting of his son, but intriguing complexities lie in how that doesn’t excuse his other issues. Through the eyes of Joe, we see that these include Troy’s poor handling of his mental health issues and a tendency to resort to violence in times of stress. In further welcome subversions of traditional cinematic depictions of trans people, Troy is the “troubled” one between himself and Joe, while their dynamic never reduces Joe to being a prop for Troy’s self-improvement. 

Ingeniously, Anna Kerrigan’s Cowboys recognizes that gender roles in Westerns and general Southern culture can be handy for trans people.

Juggling the individual perspectives of Joe and Troy is the biggest weak spot of Kerrigan’s script. Much of the story is told exclusively through Joe’s eyes, which leads to richly detailed moments like Joe sneaking away masculine-coded gifts from his father in his basement. However, the few scenes centered exclusively on Troy aren’t anywhere near that specifically realized. Either limiting things just to Joe’s point-of-view or fleshing out the solo Troy scenes would have helped to make Cowboys a more dramatically consistent experience.

Otherwise, though, the writing for Cowboys is sharp and the performances are of a similar level of quality. These include a turn from Zahn, who gets a welcome opportunity to inhabit a lead role as Troy. The warm quality Zahn has always brought to his comedic roles is utilized nicely here to make it believable that Joe would see his dad as an oasis of acceptance. Zahn also nicely modulates Troy’s more psychologically fractured moments by resisting the urge to go too broad with them. 

Out of the entire cast, though, the standout is Jillian Bell in her most prominent dramatic role to date. Bell’s thoughtful approach to her part is epitomized when Sally she tries to ward off Joe from being trans through a story about her childhood dreams about being just like Peggy Lee. The eventual moral of this yarn is that we can’t pretend to be something we’re not. It’s an awful story that’s so harmful to hear come out of a mother’s mouth.

However, Bell executes all her dialogue like she’s Matt Damon delivering the “20 seconds of courage” monologue from We Bought a Zoo. In the hands of Bell’s well-executed performance, the dissonance here lends chilling insight into just how right Sally thinks she is. As for Sasha Knight, he also impresses, particularly in his dialogue-free scenes where he conveys a whole lot through non-verbal means.

This collection of intriguing performances is delivered under the steady hand of director Anna Kerrigan. She and cinematographer John Wakayama Carey use different approaches to the backdrops of Cowboys to subtly convey how these environments reflect Joe’s perspectives. In scenes set in the suffocating world of suburbia, cramped close-ups and washed-out colors are prominent. Out in the wilderness, more luscious colors are interested while wide shots, to emphasize the idea of this terrain representing freedom, are regularly employed.

Of course, as the manhunt for Joe intensifies and Troy begins to eschew his medicine, that trek towards Canada ends up being more complicated than initially planned. The ensuing complexities in this journey prove to be one of many effective traits in Kerrigan’s script for Cowboys. Both a fascinating recontextualization of Western norms and just a touching father/son yarn, Cowboys is very much worth shouting “yee-haw!” about.

Cowboys rides into town on VOD February 12th.

Cowboys Trailer:

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