Cowboys is a touching and nuanced depiction of a Montana family facing up to their transgender son’s recent transition. Touching on themes of gender, masculinity and identity all against a backdrop of the gorgeous Montana wilderness (and the area’s more conservative views), writer/director Anna Kerrigan has created a beautiful film that packs a hefty punch despite its short running time of 83 minutes.
Steve Zahn is a force to be reckoned with as Troy, the recently incarcerated father to Joe and separated husband to Jillian Bell’s Sally. Trying to protect his son from Sally’s continued denial of Joe’s transition, Troy takes Joe from Sally’s home and into the woods towards the Canadian border. The film juggles the father and son’s journey into the wilderness with Sally coming to grips with what’s happened and why it happened, as well as her correspondence with Ann Dowd’s local detective. In this way, Troy and Joe represent a new breed of Western outlaws encumbered by Troy’s mental health issues and Joe’s gender dysphoria – two things Westerns of yore would have deemed defective. The interplay between Zahn and newcomer Sasha Knight ranges from adorably sweet to upsetting, and the openness of the land around them brings their remarkably human relationship to the foreground.
The film is also peppered with flashbacks that detail Joe’s transition, revealing the extent to which Sally has pushed back against her son’s gender dysphoria. Her stubborn usage of female pronouns and refusal to buy Joe male-oriented toys illustrate why Joe felt he had to get away. Yet despite Sally’s intolerance, she is far from wholly deplorable, with Kerrigan choosing to portray her as merely a byproduct of her community – at one point she clumsily suggests that Montana’s idolisation of masculinity is the reason for Joe’s transition – and someone capable of learning. Similarly, Troy is not your typical hero. Often doing the wrong thing for the right reasons, his battle with mental health issues makes him prone to impulsive decisions. This battle becomes more apparent as their journey goes on, allowing Zahn to exhibit both the erratic highs and the gut-wrenching lows of bipolar disorder to tremendous effect.
It should be said however that the focus is far more on Troy and Sally’s reconciliation with Joe’s transition than it is on the transition itself, never truly allowing the audience inside Joe’s head. While there are subtly affecting scenes that make clear Joe’s longing to dress and behave like Troy’s “cowboy” buddies, Joe’s transition feels at times like a plot device designed to force the parents’ conflict into being. But this isn’t necessarily a bad thing, as the parents are created with such compassion that the central friction never loses steam.
As previously mentioned, the film deserves plaudits for its remythologising of the outdated views of the Western genre. One key flashback delineates Troy’s attempts to find cowboy boots for Joe, and the pushback he encounters is representative of both the region and the Western genre’s pigheadedness towards these kinds of delicate issues. In the final scene, Joe and his father’s story is a source of fascination for the other children on Joe’s school bus, indicating a new, and far more inclusive, brand of Western mythmaking. One that prides itself on accepting people for who they are, and heroicising those who stand up for those that have to fight for such acceptance. It’s a poignant story of embracing difference that proves that we are all capable of learning and understanding one another, sometimes we just need to try.
This review was written by Oli Gamble, member of the thatfilmbloguk team, American and Canadian Studies student, and co-host of the thatfilmbloguk podcast.