Westerns are perhaps the most clearly identifiable genre in all of film. Cowboys on horses, wide landscapes, and a horn-filled score that trots along with the characters. But it’s a genre steeped in very generic ideas of masculinity, which have aged poorly and inspired much discussion over the past decades. In COWBOYS, from director Anna Kerrigan, we see a more nuanced vision of the genre and its take on masculinity, with a modern depiction of its perception in society and the nuclear family.

The film stars Steve Zahn, Jillian Bell, Ann Dowd, and introduces Sasha Knight as Joe, a young transgender boy who sets off into the Montana wilderness with his father Troy (Zahn), pursued by police officers in consequence of their leaving in the middle of the night. But the reality is a bit more complicated than it first appears, as we learn more about these people and their backstories. COWBOYS is a film that allows a wider qualification of what it takes to be a “hero”, what that hero looks like, and how our society treats those that we cannot understand.

The film opens in the middle of the narrative with Troy and his son Joe looking over the inimitable beauty of Montana’s landscape. Troy admits, “It’s so pretty it’s almost too much”, as they bask in a moment of freedom. As the story unfolds, we learn that Troy suffers from mental illness, with a condition that remains unnamed. This could be seen as a lapse in the storytelling, but it’s more of an indication to how our society sees those with mental illness—how they may be deemed as “threats”, and how our lack of understanding allows for misdiagnosis and mistreatment. The wilderness’ place in this story becomes a setting free of bias, but as Troy foreshadows in the opening moment, this freedom may be too good to be true.

Steve Zahn has the most weight on his shoulders, because it’s the development of his character that eventually allows empathy to enter into the narrative, not just for Troy, but for everyone we meet. As we learn more about Troy and his struggles, he becomes a force of chaotic morality and Zahn’s charismatic energy, as we often see him, shines in these moments. And as his relationship with Jillian Bell’s Sally is expanded, she grows more empathic as well, as the pain of having lost her child grows.

It’s Jillian Bell’s performance that is actually the most surprising, not due to a lack in confidence in her acting ability, but because I wasn’t expecting her character to be so sympathetic. In the film’s trailer, and for maybe the first half of the story, she is simply portrayed as a narrow-minded “witch” who can’t accept her child’s true identity, which is what causes Joe’s desire to run away. But her arc is one that promotes change, accepting its virtues, and forgiveness.

And while Sasha Knight is unfortunately relegated to more of a plot point than given an arc of equal development, in a way this becomes the entire point of the film. In a changing world, it is not he that actually has to change, nor is it he that has to prove anything to anyone. He is pure and unmoving, as children are. In fact, without spoiling anything important, it’s the concluding moment that proves this when Joe finds himself with a group of his classmates, all staring at him in awe and confusion. We of course expect them to judge him, but in fact they all just want to hear his story and show genuine interest in him as a person. After all, children are not born with bias; bias is instilled in them.

Like RAMS last week, COWBOYS is another film that is largely more complex than the trailer teases. And I think it’s one that’s worth the watch in isolation, so that when we finally find ourselves properly involved in society again, we can interact with a better sense of understanding and forgiveness.

Have a great week!

Nick Alderink