In the vast wildness of Montana, Troy (Steve Zahn) and his eleven-year-old son Joe (Sasha Knight) roam the land in search of something not easily definable. Eating beans from a can and travelling by horseback, they resemble the type of denim-clad men that Joe idolizes. This romanticized view of masculinity in Anna Kerrigan’s Cowboys is short lived, though. Unravelling faster than a weak knot in a lasso, the harsh reality of their predicament become too hard to ignore.
Using flashbacks to help set the stage, Kerrigan outlines how the duo’s problems started long before they found themselves on an impromptu adventure in the woods. A loving father and occasionally unreliable husband, Troy wants nothing more than to see his kid be happy. When Joe, who was originally named Josie, announces that he has never felt right in the body he was born in, Troy does what he can to be supportive. This response does not sit well with his wife Sally (Jillian Bell) who refuses to believe that Joe expresses anything more than a fleeting tomboy phase.
Wanting Joe to wear dresses and to play with dolls instead of sling shots, Sally tries her hardest to force hetero-normative ideals onto her child. This pressure not only strains her relationship with Joe, but it also fosters further resentment towards Troy. Having to always pick up the pieces after his unstable outbursts, Sally cannot stand the fact that Joe views his father through a heroic lens.
As one observes the dynamics between Troy and Sally, Cowboys reveals itself to be more about the notion of traditional gender roles and expectations, and depicting just how outdated they are. Sally’s reluctance to see Joe for who he is has potentially dangerous consequences when she fails to provide the police investigation team, led by Detective Faith (Ann Dowd), with an accurate description of Joe’s likeness when he disappears. As much as Sally wants to force her child into a peg that he does not fit, she herself is rather sour about the roles often assigned to women. As she laments to Troy in one heated moment, “Who would chose to be a girl?” This implies that being a woman lacks the mythic glamour that society has associated with being a man.
While the western genre has played a big role in conveying a flawed prototype of masculinity, Kerrigan’s modern western trades grit for genuine emotion. This is not to say that Kerrigan does not incorporate several tropes of the genre, including Detective Faith on a horse in full tracker mode, which bring a smile to the face. However, at its core, Cowboys is a touching tale of the bumpy road to acceptance that some must travel. It is as much about Troy and Sally learning to see their child for who he is as it is about Joe leaning to be comfortable in his skin.
Using nature and separation as tools to for character growth, most of the combative moments happen within indoor spaces. Kerrigan’s film unfolds at a measured paced. Although there is a nice mix of drama and tension throughout, Cowboys stumbles its way to a rather obvious conclusion that does not have the same emotional impact as the rest of the film.
The last act may not hold together as tightly as it could have, but the great performances by the ensemble cast ensures one is always invested in the character’s journey. Zahn displays great range as the off-kilter but well-meaning Tory, a man who only wants to provide his son with a safe place to be himself. His character never feels like caricature, but simply a flawed individual trying to maintain an image of strength while crumbling on the inside. Although Bell and Dowd’s roles are not a flashy, neither is overshadowed by Zahn’s character. They manage to keep the film grounded in a sense of honesty that is refreshing.
Showing that people need to work on themselves before they can truly accept others, Cowboys is a film worth saddling up to.