Saturday 27 March 2021

Cowboys (Anna Kerrigan, 2020)

Screening as part of BFI Flare until tomorrow, Cowboys stands as one of the very best films playing at this year's festival.  Which is quite the compliment, given that the 2021 edition of Flare has boasted an especially strong lineup; having now seen every one of the 26 feature films on offer, I can honestly say that there isn't one title in there that isn't worthy of your time and money.  Given that most film festivals usually serve up their fair share of duds, the quality of this year's Flare programme is testament to the terrific work of the team responsible for the event; the standard of this year's edition is all the more remarkable when you consider that the festival was assembled under the restrictions imposed by COVID-19 (last year's Flare was cancelled on account of the pandemic).  If you are unable to access the excellent Cowboys on the festival platform, it is also available to view on Apple TV.

The film centres on Troy (Steve Zahn), a father struggling with both bipolar disorder and a fractious relationship with his estranged wife Sally (Jillian Bell).  Troy and Sally have an 11-year-old named Joe (Sasha Knight), whose gender dysphoria is a bone of contention between the two adults; Troy is very supportive of Joe, while Sally is generally unwilling to accept that her child identifies as a boy.  Troy has moved out of the family home and, as is so often the case with such arrangements, the matter of parental visits is another cause of conflict; it's fair to say that no-one in the family is having a particularly great time.  Following one especially fraught episode, Troy and Joe hastily plan to run away together, and the two head off on a horseback odyssey through the wilds of Montana, with the goal being to cross the border into Canada where, according to Steve, a more accepting society awaits.  Meanwhile, Sally has alerted the authorities, and a determined—yet not completely unsympathetic—detective (Ann Dowd) sets off to track down the missing child.

Throughout Troy and Joe's journey, we're treated to flashbacks which fill in more details regarding both of them, and through these we witness a family disintegrating as various pressures are piled on.  The film isn't keen on apportioning blame, however, and it's refreshing to see that Sally isn't cast as the villain of the piece; while we're shown that Sally has been difficult, we also witness occasions when Troy does little to help his own (or anyone else's) cause, and it's clear that both of the parents have contributed to the decline of their marriage.  Meanwhile, in the present, Joe and Troy (and their quite magnificent horse) edge their way through the wild, with their transient life in the rural Northwest recalling 2018's similarly-themed Leave No Trace.  One night, Joe wanders away from the campsite and promptly falls into a nearby river; although Troy comes to the rescue, he loses his medication in the process, and in the days that follow his behaviour grows increasingly erratic, which is especially troubling given that he's carrying a gun.  As the trek grows ever harder, the two trudge on towards Canada, but at the same time the police are gaining ground on the runaways.

Cowboys features some great performances—Zahn, Bell, Knight and Dowd all turn in terrific work here, and the film makes for a taut, tense affair, one in which you feel as if you're never far away from disaster, which is probably a fairly accurate representation of a life spent both on the run and in the wild.  While the film certainly doesn't shy away from the issue of gender dysphoria, it really isn't the driving force behind Cowboys—rather, the story of a father doing whatever he can to help his child is the beating heart of the film.  Troy may be misguided—most would agree that his plan to whisk his child away is not a very clever one—but there's no doubting his sincerity, and he clearly believes that his actions are going to benefit Joe.  There's plenty of nuance here and, just as with the film's reluctance to demonise Sally, there's no attempt to sell Troy's actions as the correct ones.  Troy is simply a desperate man doing what he thinks is best; while we're required to sympathise with (and even root for) him, we're at no point asked to buy into what he's doing, and we get so caught up in caring for Troy and Joe's wellbeing that we largely forget about the hare-brained nature of their quest.  Cowboys is a gripping, affecting tale, sensitively told.

Darren Arnold