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  • Writer's picturePerrin Faerch

Review: Cowboys (2021)

Updated: Jun 9, 2021

The western genre has birthed some of the greatest films ever with memorable heroes, villains, stories and settings. But, as thrilling as the genre can be, it also can be quite stagnant, with a lot of westerns falling by the wayside as they try to replicate the effective formulas of past great stories and its characters - never really challenging the genre with fresh spins on successful tropes and clichés that can strengthen the film rather than hamper it. Anna Kerrigan writes and directs Cowboys, another welcome addition to a slow and steady stream of fresh and unique westerns that have been trickling in over the years. The most recent non-traditional western outputs of Concrete Cowboy (2021) and Eastern (2020) are entirely unique in setting as well as the themes at play (especially Eastern). Anna Kerrigan adds to the growing list of fresh new spins on the genre, managing to give an entirely unique approach using the masculinity of cowboys and westerns to discuss gender identity, gender roles, self-discovery and eventually acceptance.

Told in a non-linear fashion, Troy (Steve Zahn) runs away with his transgender son Joe (Sasha Knight) to the Montana wilderness in hopes of eventually crossing over into Canada for a better life. But soon, they find themselves on the run from the law when Sally (Jillian Bell), Troy’s wife and Joe’s mother, informs the police, making them outlaws on the run as detective Faith Erickson (Ann Dowd) follows their trail.

A vast majority of westerns rely on the masculine tropes and characteristics of their characters and themes in order to tell their stories. The "strong silent types" often go on adventures to exact revenge, take down marauding brutes, save the damsel in distress, etc. It’s a genre filled with iconic heroes and villains, but as stated, most of them have to rely on typically masculine traits with tough-guy personas who are seemingly products of their time and environment (that being the wild west). Of course, not all westerns are like this. There have been a lot of non-traditional westerns over the years that subvert these typical ideals within the genre and give us far more flawed and relatable characters instead of a hammy John Wayne-type killing tons of Native Americans with no remorse. The modern western allows for filmmakers to manipulate and explore untapped potential the genre has in confronting deeper more relatable themes. Most recently, films like Eastern and Concrete Cowboy are fine examples of merging modern day settings within a genre that is traditionally set more in frontier times. Anna Kerrigan’s story within Cowboys is so perfectly appropriate in how it tackles gender identity as well as gender roles found within a strictly traditional world.

Kerrigan approaches these traditional conventions within this world by literally providing a journey of self-discovery not only for Joe, but that of understanding and acceptance for his parents as well. Troy’s initial understanding of the gender Joe identifies with is met with it just being a tomboy phase, but soon understands and accepts it wholeheartedly. It’s Joe’s mother that struggles to accept that the daughter she raised is not who Joe feels and knows he is, effectively making her the unintentional villain of Joe's journey. There’s a heartbreaking scene that puts Joe’s feelings into perspective when he opens up to Troy about how he feels: “aliens are playing a joke on me by putting me in a girl’s body”. This moment really puts it into perspective of how some children at this age come to terms with what gender they identify with. What makes the entire story of Cowboys such a great observation of acceptance and the refusal to understand within a traditional family dynamic is how parents conflict with each other over what their child knows is not a phase for them. Jill fears that Joe hates her because of how she places (or has been placed) herself within the family as a traditional woman of cooking and cleaning all day, waitressing and doing all the typically idealized roles of a woman and mother. “Of course she doesn’t want to spend time with me, because I’m a piece of shit!” It’s a tough situation for both parents as she refuses to listen to both Troy and Joe, continuing to insist on it being just a tomboy phase.

Despite accepting Joe as his son, Troy’s relationship with Jill begins to fracture over his insistence and understanding that this is who Joe really is. And despite Jill being afraid of Joe hating her for not being the cool, typically rugged male and more fun figure of Troy, she still insists on making Joe wear dresses and adhere to traditionally acceptable behavioral patterns of a young girl, because that's what was forced and placed upon her growing up. That’s why it’s so intrinsic to plot and character that Kerrigan has placed Joe’s journey in the confines of this rural setting of traditionalism as he becomes fascinated with the rugged, masculine ideals of the cowboy. After all, when people think of the ultimate tough man exterior, they often think of the cowboy. Plaid shirts, shorter hair, boots, jeans and the great outdoors; far away from the housekeeping ideals inflicted upon women over countless generations. It’s the complete opposite of that, a life of unrestrictive freedom in going and doing what you want, marching to the beat of your own drum.

Anna Kerrigan’s approach to each relationship is felt with a total sense of understanding in why each person within the family feels this way. Although Jill doesn’t quite see how this is hurting her relationship with Joe and Troy, Kerrigan gives us a perspective as to why she feels the need to hold onto her idea of who Joe is supposed to be. The same goes for Joe and Troy’s perspectives. Placing them as bandits on the run is a great metaphor as they run away from what is expected of them versus what they know they need to be and do. It’s beautifully effective storytelling and character development that puts each moment of conflict into focus, taking it from a drama of self-discovery and acceptance and letting it have all the makings of an effective western with appropriate tropes and settings.

The ensemble is outstanding with transgender actor Sasha Knight’s casting proving to be an entirely appropriate decision that allows for authenticity to shine through. However, it’s Steve Zahn who is, for me at least, the shining star of Cowboys. He has never been better, providing a performance of both nuance and raw emotional power that feels like a genuine sense of love and understanding for Joe and his journey. He loves and accepts, proving to be the loving influence that not only Joe needs, but all of us can only wish for in our respective lives.

Kerrigan’s non-linear structure in telling the story is smartly realized as well. Jumping between two different phases of their story is important in painting a picture of Troy’s journey with his son, but most importantly, it’s effective in understanding the journey of Joe’s transition to who he is now. We go from their camping trip in the present to their family life in the past as Joe begins to confront and fully embrace who he knows he is. This is important as it doesn’t want you, Troy, Jill and even Joe to forget who he was before. Kerrigan wants to remind you of the difficulties in this process for them as a family and how this essentially shapes their relationships going forward. In order for us to accept this in the same way Troy does and how Jill needs to as well, we need to see the entire journey from start to finish. Kerrigan’s writing is phenomenal as revelations aren’t told to us but revealed to us. They open themselves up to us much in the same way Joe’s story behind her journey reveals itself to us. The closer we get to Joe, the more he chooses to show us. Kerrigan writes it in such a way that it allows for the audience to listen and observe patiently, letting the story divulge more about Joe's transitional journey, instead of us prodding and forcing answers that Joe would prefer to relay to you in due time. It’s effective storytelling that pays off your patience as each cut between past and present paints a clear picture of who these people are and where they are heading as a family.

Cowboys is a beautifully made and performed story of acceptance, self-discovery and gender identity that could only be told as effectively within the ideals of a modern western with some of its effective tropes and plot beats on hand. It’s an exercise in exploration, identity, and even redemption that gives it echoes of the smarter, more complex westerns over the years. Anna Kerrigan is most certainly a talent to keep your eye on.

Where you can watch it: Hulu (USA), most VOD platforms (USA, UK)

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