Review: Featuring Varied Animation Styles (and Lily Gladstone), Quantum Cowboys Impresses with its Ambition and Originality

If 2023 didn’t satiate your need to see Lily Gladstone be awesome in both The Unknown Country and her award-winning performance in Killers of the Flower Moon, you have one more shot to experience her laid-back but still highly infectious acting style in director Geoff Marslett’s live-action/animated hybrid Quantum Cowboys. Blending 14 animation styles (including hand drawn, stop motion, computer generated, oil painting, clip art, and so much more) to tell what is—at its core, a Western—the film quickly falls down multiple rabbit holes concerning quantum time theory, the multiverse, memory, music, death, and of course, art. All of this is accentuated by the aforementioned animation, as well as live-action rotoscoping and various film stocks. The results are sometimes awe inspiring, sometimes frustrating, but always fascinating, humorous, and even hypnotic.

Regarding as much of the plot as I understood, the film begins with two drifters, Frank (Kiowa Gordon) and Bruno (John Way) coming into a town where a musician is killed…or is he? That’s one of the many mysteries these two must figure out as they navigate 1870s Southern Arizona, stumbling into gunfights, saloons, deserts, as well as more highfalutin' philosophies about non-linear time structure and the like. Early in their travels, they meet Linde (Gladstone), who is looking to recover her land while dishing out sage advise, a few well-placed lies, and loads of laughs at the expense of her two companions. And as the three travel together (with us in tow), they stumble into one unique character after another, played by the likes of David Arquette and Frank Mosley (as the closest things to villains the film has), singer Neko Case (in her first acting role), Joe Doe, and Gary Farmer.

If the film sounds somewhat conventional, what sets it apart is the constantly shifting visual language, going from live action to any number of animation styles in an instant. The film feels alive, as if it’s ready to spring off the screen, which is both invigorating and sometimes distracting. At times, Quantum Cowboys feels drug-induced, and honestly, the whole experience might have gone down easier were one stoned out of one’s mind. Forgive me for reviewing this from the straight and sober perspective.

By the time the film settles into a story about the boys trying to save the singer’s life by reliving the moment of his death over and over until the proper sequence of events finally makes his living a possibility, I was fully on board. Still, I couldn’t stop myself for searching for rules to this frame of existence that clearly had none, or at least has rules that are constantly shifting.

It’s impossible not to admire the ambition here, even if the execution doesn’t alway lock in. Quantum Cowboys has charm for miles, and Gladstone completists will be utterly satisfied with her performance here (which was shot before either of her current films, if I’m not mistaken), if only because she seems so at ease playing this character. She’s also the only person bringing genuine emotion to a film that can often feel weird for weird’s sake, even bordering on silly.

Above all else, the movie made me genuinely curious what filmmaker Marslett will do next. This work clearly took years to make, so hopefully he can assemble something equally interesting in a shorter timeframe. There’s no way you’ll find Quantum Cowboys anything other that original and inspired, even if you also find it puzzling and born of hippies.

The film is playing as part of Elevated Films on Wednesday, Jan. 10; and at the Gene Siskel Film Center on Thursday, Jan. 11, both with filmmaker Geoff Marslett appearing for an introduction and post-screening Q&A.

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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 (SlashFilm.com) 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.