BFI Flare film review: Cowboys
Smacks of gender6
Cathy Brennan | On 19, Mar 2021
Director: Anna Kerrigan
Cast: Steve Zahn, Jillian Bell, Sasha Knight
Watch Cowboys online in the UK: BFI Flare
The most quintessentially American genre, Westerns set in the 21st century tend to frame contemporary America as an entity to be fled from. In Anna Kerrigan’s Cowboys, Steve Zahn plays Troy Johnson, who runs away with his trans son Joe (Sasha Knight) into the Montana wilderness in the hope of reaching Canada on horseback. Joe’s mother Sally (Jillian Bell) is unsupportive of Joe’s trans identity, which prompts this quasi-kidnapping.
The film alternates between the main chase narrative and flashbacks revealing the circumstances that led Troy and Joe to go on the run. This creates a trail of breadcrumbs for the audience to follow as they become more acquainted with the characters and understand their motivations.
Well-regarded as a character actor, Zahn’s performance as Joe is the main draw. He plays Troy with a tremulous energy that makes him almost as endearing as a child. When Joe comes out to him as trans, it’s clear that Troy doesn’t understand, yet he is immediately accepting. The parent-child relationship in this scene is almost closer to that of two childhood friends, at first jostling and jokey, before becoming heartfelt. For Zahn to build that kind of rapport with an actor as young as Knight is impressive. It is from this unconventional father-son relationship that Cowboys delivers its most wrenching scenes.
Cowboys is full of big, emotional moments. The film tackles difficult topics of mental health, gender and the role of the parent. There’s a particularly heavy scene where a male cousin of Joe’s slips into his changing room at a clothes shop and verbally abuses him, almost physically, before Troy intervenes. Yet the film never reaches nihilistic levels of miserablism, instead using weighty subject matter as a means to make the audience consider the role of family and community in the 21st century, although in one major respect this could have gone even further.
The script does a great job at teasing out the underlying issues that drive Sally to reject Joe’s identity. Bell’s performance paints this picture of a woman who is clearly dissatisfied with a life of upholding patriarchal gender roles. She’s self-conscious about her scoliosis and wrinkles. A motherly pep talk she gives Joe is so bleak it borders on comedic, yet it highlights Sally’s disappointment with a life that sees her alternate between waitressing and taking care of her family. This is made explicit in an argument she has with Troy about Joe’s gender when she says: “Look who gets to suck. Look who gets to be the lame-ass mom stuck at home.” If the film has a glaring weakness, it’s that Sally’s characterisation is mostly relegated to the background. The film’s sympathy for her is quiet and can easily be forgotten about, while Troy gets to take centre stage. In this way, the film’s priorities reflect standard patriarchal ideas of who gets to be sympathetic and who, in Sally’s own words, “gets to suck”.
Despite the sidelining of Sally, that rare depth to her character remains. Compared to film scripts that are overcrowded with simplistic bigots for audiences to feel superior to, it’s the fleshed-out characterisation of Sally and Troy that ultimately makes Cowboys worth watching. It may appear, from reading this review, that Joe’s trans identity is largely incidental to the larger story about family. Thank God for that, to be honest. At a time when trans children’s experiences are scrutinised by hostile forces on both sides of the Atlantic, having a character like Joe just be part of the film is a minor miracle.
Cowboys is available to stream at BFI Flare until Sunday 28th March. Book tickets here