Available for live streaming on the InsideOut LGBTQ+ Film Festival’s platform until October 11, Cowboys opens with the suspense and action you’d expect of a Western. Playing on the trope of good cowboy outlaws chased by misguided law officers, Cowboys deconstructs masculinity in novel ways by featuring an unlikely pair: a caring father struggling with mental health issues and his trans son running away from a mother who refuses to let go of her “little girl.”
Steve Zahn’s incredible performance as Troy, the kind and manic father, carries the film forward as he kidnaps his son and attempts to cross the Canadian border on a white horse. The breathtaking Montana mountains, forests, and rivers act as timeless characters that have been awing us in Westerns since John Wayne and Clint Eastwood’s features. Anna Kerrigan, the writer and director, successfully queers the genre, especially with her treatment of Jo (the son, superbly played by Sasha Knight). Jo’s coming out to his father in the middle of the night after doing doughnuts in his pickup truck in an empty parking lot was an essential moment. Zahn’s and Knight’s performances, their chemistry onscreen, is evident throughout the film, and especially in this key scene that changes everything.
Jo’s mother, Sally, played by Jillian Bell, contacts the local police after she notices her child is missing. Detective Faith, played by Ann Dowd, takes the case and connects the dots at the same time as audiences understand why Troy was moved to kidnap his boy (it’s not just the father’s impulsivity, although that’s part of it). As a portrait of father and son who redefine the archetype of a cowboy, the film is a success; although essential to the story, the treatment of the two female characters, Sally and Detective Faith, felt a bit rushed. The mother especially, who is key to understanding the cowboys as well as a catalyst for the plot of the film, feels somewhat flat. Detective Faith, a thoughtful cop who attempts to help the cowboys before armed paramilitary police forces get to them first, is a strong and endearing figure I would have liked to have been more developed as well.
It’s no surprise that Cowboys was officially selected for competition in the 2020 Tribeca Film Festival, in which Zahn won best actor and writer/director Kerrigan, won best screenplay.