BFI FLARE REVIEW: ‘Cowboys’ (2021) is an Epic Journey That Tells an Untold Story

Rating: 4 out of 5.

“It’s an important story that audiences need to see”

On the surface, Cowboys certainly feels like a traditional Western, with its central father and son protagonists trekking though the gorgeous Montana wilderness. However, the film quickly establishes itself as a family drama about acceptance. It’s an often tragic but emotional story of a young transgender boy living in a conservative town with a supportive father, and a mother who refuses to let him be his true self.

The film dives straight into the adventure led by Troy (Steve Zahn) and his son Joe (Sasha Knight), who aim to cross the border into Canada after leaving behind Joe’s mother, Sally (Jillian Bell). Even though Joe asks his father to take him away from home, in Sally’s eyes her child has been kidnapped, and it isn’t long until a local police officer (Ann Dowd) begins tracking down Troy and Joe. Flashbacks immediately make Sally a truly unlikeable character, as she outright refuses to accept Joe for who he is. She makes him wear feminine outfits and purposefully uses incorrect pronouns, making Joe visibly miserable having his identity completely dismissed by his own mother. These flashbacks occur throughout the whole film, revealing the backstories of the central trio and how everything has led to the current turn of events. This narrative structure mostly works but at times it can interrupt the pacing, and even dumb down character backstories. For example, Troy loses his pills in the present, and the film cuts to a flashback of his erratic behaviour.

A woman in a blue shirt stands in a darkened hallway of a non-descript house, looking at something with concern.
Image courtesy of BFI

Cowboys is a fantastic showcase for Zahn. His comedic and light-hearted persona is a perfect match for the lovable, cool father, but there are also several scenes that let Zahn explore the range of emotions Troy often goes through. He’s a father who genuinely tries his best to make Joe happy, even if he doesn’t completely understand Joe’s trans identity. Troy also struggles with his mental health, and isn’t in a great place without his pills. The plot— and camera—seems to mostly follow Troy however, even though the character at the centre of the narrative is Joe. Newcomer Knight— who, like Joe, is transgender— is superb. It is evident from the first frame of the flashbacks how uncomfortable Joe is when wearing a dress at a family barbecue, and the joy in his eyes as he looks up to his father will warm audiences’ hearts. Although Joe does get some great scenes and story beats, the could done have done more with his character. Both parents struggle to step back and listen to Joe, and it seems the film itself sometimes has the same problem.

The world of cowboys and westerns that Joe longs for comes across both visually and audibly. The cinematography is often stunning, thanks to plenty of picturesque wide shots of the rolling Montana wildlands that our heroes traverse. The score features plenty of guitar strumming, with a couple of country tunes along the way. Writer and director Anna Kerrigan injects a couple of set pieces along Troy and Joe’s adventure to keep things exciting. These sequences are well-choreographed and edited together, but the character drama is more than enough to sustain interest and keep things engaging. That need to up the tension is more prevalent in the third act climax, which feels unnecessarily dramatic. Thankfully, the actual ending wraps up each character arc nicely, and the final scene is wonderfully touching.

With Cowboys, Kerrigan has crafted an emotional and epic journey for modern audiences. It’s an important story that audiences need to see, and the western settings and aesthetics builds onto the narrative. Zahn may be dangerously close to stealing the spotlight with his stunning performance, but Knight and his character are the beating heart of this gripping adventure. 

Dir: Anna Kerrigan

Wri: Anna Kerrigan

Prod: Anil Baral, Alex Dong, Gigi Graff, Anna Kerrigan, Chris Laszlo, Chris Parker, Dylan Sellers, Natalie Sellers

Cast: Sasha Knight, Steve Zahn, Jillian Bell, Ann Dowd, Gary Farmer

Screened at BFI Flare Festival 2021

Header image courtesy of BFI.