Cowboys feels like exactly the sort of film people should think of when they hear the words ‘Modern Western’. Yes, No Country For Old Men, Hell or High Water and Sicario are all well and good but the only thing modern about them is the setting (and not even that in the 1980-set No Country…). Cowboys, on the other hand, feels like the purest attempt to portray the stories and trappings of the Western genre into the complicated reality of 2021.
Directed by Anna Kerrigan, the film sees father Troy (Steve Zahn) set off with his trans son Joe (Sasha Knight) into the vast wilderness of Montana, headed for the Canadian border. Back home it transpires that the two are on the run from mother Sally (Jillian Bell) who has refused to accept Joe’s identity and has called the police in to retrieved her effectively kidnapped child. What follows is a meditative journey across glorious landscape as Troy and Joe attempt to survive the wild and evade capture by the pursuing Detective Faith Erikson (Ann Dowd). Through flashbacks we also see the beginnings of Joe’s transition and the destruction of her parent’s relationship which has placed them on this path.
A traditional Western story then, a father and son on the run from the law across open country, bolstered by the thoroughly contemporary twist to the tale. Joe’s transition being the driving force behind their status as fugitives is a both a believable hook and something that could only come about at this moment in time. More and more young children are becoming comfortable exploring their gender identity, even as conservative parents resist. At the same time Troy represents a thoroughly modern interpretation of the classic rugged man of the wilderness. Forever in the doorway of domesticity, unable to integrate to civilised life. Here Zahn portrays him not as a noble brute, essential for the survival of his family, but as a charming, vulnerable and disturbed man. Concerned and determined for the wellbeing of his son but also foolish and reckless when it comes to seeing it through. The nods to his fragile mental health and substance abuse serve as a reminder of how the modern world now understands the factors that make up such once mythical figures.
It is newcomer Lane though who does a lot of the film’s heavy-lifting, commendably so as such a young actor. Convincingly portraying the awkwardness of Joe attempting to fill the role of the cis-girl her mother so badly wants him to be. As he begins to lose his femininity and understand his own identity it feels genuine and understated. The conviction behind Lane’s performance carries through as the relationship between Troy and Joe is tested out in the wild. With Joe forced to come to terms with the flawed man his father is, even as he fights for Joe so earnestly. The chemistry between him and the ever-lovable Zahn sells a relationship built on warmth and a genuine desire to understand each other.
Beyond that, the typically-comedic Bell gives a stunning turn as Sally. Putting a lot of nuance into a role that could easily come across as cartoonishly villainous. Her desperation to find Joe is deeply sympathetic but also frames her aggressive resistance to Joe’s transition. Possessing a constant sadness, even at her most angry, as though already in mourning for the daughter she feels she is losing. It’s admittedly a rose-tinted portrayal of a transphobic mother, leaving room for her third-act redemption. However, the story commits so well to showing the consequences of Troy’s folly that it earns its happy ending. No discussion of the film’s performances would be complete though without a mention of Ann Dowd. Giving such an authoritative performance as a capable, but empathetic police detective that it makes one wonder if she wouldn’t suit one of those geriatric action movies so common these days.
More than anything though, Cowboys is an inescapably majestic film. The backdrop of Montana’s mountains feed the sense of beauty and adventure inherent to its two leads. Even at its darkest, both thematically and aesthetically, the film never loses its lightness of touch. That’s not to say it’s without tension, Troy and Joe’s journey is constantly filled with danger and risk of capture. However, it all serves to liven up the pacing and at no point do any of the characters come across as malicious. Like all great Modern Westerns this is not a film of archetypes but real human beings, doing what they think is best. This does have the result of the film seeming to sugar-coat the realities of what trans people face however it’s fitting with the Western homage the film seeks to make.