Review: A Modern Western, Cowboys Puts Family Dynamics to the Test

Set in small-town Montana, Cowboys, the latest from writer/director Anna Kerrigan (Five Days Gone), concerns a family in crisis largely because its patriarch, Troy (Steve Zahn), is a good man who gets in a great deal of trouble due to impulse control issues stemming from a diagnosed manic condition. He’s been in jail and has become largely unemployable, putting pressure on wife Sally (Jillian Bell) to keep things stable at home. It’s at this critical juncture that their tween daughter Joe (Sasha Knight), who the parents have always assumed was just displaying tomboy tendencies, reveals herself to Troy to be a boy trapped in a girl’s body. Troy is a spectacular father and has no issues with Joe being his trans son; Sally, on the other hand, sees this as just another mess she has to deal with while Troy lands in jail again (defending Joe from bullies).

cowboys Image courtesy of the film

The couple separate while Troy is being released, and Sally has custody of Joe, which everyone knows is a bad idea. Troy is allowed to visit once a week, and during one of these visits, Troy and Joe concoct a scheme to run away to Canada together, allowing Troy a new start and Joe to live his authentic life away from judgmental voices (one would hope). Before long, the two become fugitives, an Amber Alert is transmitted, and they are hunted like criminals. The local sheriff from their hometown (Ann Dowd) is the first to begin the search, and she seems to have the best tracking and negotiating skills in finding the pair. The film’s timeline jumps back and forth between the pursuit and the events that led to Troy and Joe leaving, and it’s sometimes difficult to know who to root for. At one point early on, Troy loses the pills he takes to control his manic behavior, and from that point forward, we begin to wonder if Joe wouldn’t be better off back home, as much as we want him to be happy playing cowboy with his dad, a man he clearly admires for his free spirit and open mind.

Cowboys is a small story that isn’t likely to set the world on fire, but the bond between Troy and Joe is genuinely moving and quietly devastating. And I’ll give Bell credit for taking on such an unlikable character and giving her some depth. It’s clear Sally loves Joe, but is afraid that he’s in for a lifetime of hurt, disappointment and possibly harm. She’s also colossally bad at conveying this, but we get a sense she’s on the right path as the story approaches its conclusion. This isn’t a work that’s going to spring surprises on you or keep you guessing as to what happens to Troy and Joe, but that doesn’t take anything away from its impact. It’s not taking big emotional swings, but what it delivers is honesty, empathy and a modern-day Western from a talented filmmaker.

The film is being released in virtual cinemas and on VOD February 12.

Did you enjoy this post? Please consider supporting Third Coast Review’s arts and culture coverage by making a donation. Choose the amount that works best for you, and know how much we appreciate your support! 

Picture of the author
Steve Prokopy

Steve Prokopy is chief film critic for the Chicago-based arts outlet Third Coast Review. For nearly 20 years, he was the Chicago editor for Ain’t It Cool News, where he contributed film reviews and filmmaker/actor interviews under the name “Capone.” Currently, he’s a frequent contributor at /Film ( and Backstory Magazine. He is also the public relations director for Chicago's independently owned Music Box Theatre, and holds the position of Vice President for the Chicago Film Critics Association. In addition, he is a programmer for the Chicago Critics Film Festival, which has been one of the city's most anticipated festivals since 2013.