"Westerns Are the American Myth": Steve Zahn on How 'Cowboys' Sets the Stage for a Hopeful Future
"I sat down and read it and cried"
Published Feb 12, 2021The reason behind why Steve Zahn agreed to the role of Troy in the Anna Kerrigan's film Cowboys is simple: "I sat down and read it and cried," he tells Exclaim!
The film follows Zahn's Troy running off with his son, Joe (Sasha Knight), into the Montana wilderness. The father and son are escaping Joe's mother, Troy's ex-wife Sally (Jillian Bell), because of her refusal to accept that Joe is a trans boy. As the two make their way toward Canada — which in Troy's mind is a kind and grand utopia — they are pursued by local detective Faith (Ann Dowd).
There are a lot of complex narratological layers in this movie — Troy and Sally's fraught relationship, the question of Sally's ability to be a good mother in face of her prejudices, Troy's bipolar disorder — but they're all made legible by Joe and his desire to be a cowboy. Joe's narrative is simple, and this is what brings on the tears.
"Westerns are the American myth," Zahn says. "It's our story." The genre provides the perfect landscape in which to explore not only what it means to be American, but also what it means to be human.
The film's opening scenes are like an Albert Bierstadt painting — they depict Troy and Joe riding a white horse through Big Sky Country, which is so vast the mind makes it seem flat just so it can comprehend it. The landscape, Troy says, is so beautiful you could die looking at it.
It's this natural simplicity and necessity that the character of Joe embodies. When Joe comes out to Troy, he says he's known for a long time that he is a boy. He knows who he is and is certain about himself — he wants to be a cowboy. Rather, it's everyone around him who needs to figure out who they are and get their shit together.
Accordingly, all the struggle in Cowboys lies within Troy and Sally as they work toward becoming better parents and empathetic humans. Though Troy doesn't question Joe when he comes out to him and is quick in his attempt to rescue him from Sally, he still has work to do in becoming responsible enough to take care of his child. Zahn deftly plays the deadbeat dad, but fleshes the trope out so Troy's not a shadow on the fringes of Joe's childhood; Joe and Troy are best friends. Joe admires Troy and wants to be just like him, but Tory doesn't have the financial or emotional stability to care for Joe alone.
"I don't know who I am half the time," Zahn says in Troy's perspective. "I need drugs to keep me steady so I can function, so I can hold down a job, so I don't go off and drink too much, so I don't stay up for three days."
Of course, having a mental illness isn't a moral failure — but not doing household work, expecting your wife to take care of everything at home, and staying out and drinking too much do create an unstable and unsafe environment for a child.
"Who would want to be a girl," Sally asks Troy helplessly at one point, before Joe has come out as trans — she thinks Joe is a "tomboy" and that he's going through a "phase." But her question strikes at the heart of Troy's irresponsibility as a dad. Sally, rightly, feels it's unfair that Troy seems like the fun parent while she is the disciplinarian staying at home cleaning and cooking. Troy's struggle in the film, then, is to become a better and more present dad — something the journey to Canada demands of him.
Sally's struggle, meanwhile, is her inability to visualize life outside of the heteronormative culture in which she was raised. "We have one path in life," she says to Joe in what is effectively the most frightening line in the movie. Parents shouldn't say that to their kids, but Sally wholeheartedly believes it. She keeps pushing Joe to don hyper-feminine clothing, play with dolls and wear pink cowboy boots. But at every turn, Joe resists, and this isn't something Sally respects.
The reason, Zahn says, why Troy puts up less resistance to Joe is because he appreciates Joe for knowing who he is — Troy has no idea who he is or what he should do in life. Sally, meanwhile, has an image of who Joe ought to be, ignoring the fact of the child standing before her, the fact that Joe is still her kid.
"Some people choose this really hard path [in life] because of some ideology," Zahn says. These pre-existing notions of how people should be "can complicate the hell out of [things] and make everybody miserable."
Ideologies take a while to calcify, and this is something Cowboys doesn't take for granted. Though the film is full of conflict, the ultimate takeaway is hopeful — something Zahn believes is perfect for this moment in time.
"I'm an optimist," Zahn says. Though it's been a tough year, this movie can show us that "we will take care of each other."