Dealing more with American political landscape than with either psychology or metaphysics, Gus Van Sant’s film of Tom Robbins’s 1976 novel Even Cowgirls Get the Blues had an uphill battle from the get-go to appear as other than the trivial thing that it is. Little here has even the potential to engage. Only a fanatic, of the Ruby Ridgean sort, for example, could care about what was once the increasingly media-manufactured conflict between rugged individualism—a myth—and a highly regulatory federal government, a by-product of that myth. Once again there is an F.B.I. assault on a heavily armed compound. But now America has other things to worry about: the specter of Islamic terrorism, conveniently exploited, hence largely manufactured, by an insipid and quite possibly insane U.S. president, who is perfectly willing to destroy his own nation if it can distract fellow citizens’ attention from his unsuitability for high office. It appears that Bushes are alike, bound by ineptitude and a hidden contempt for their country and its people, apart from the coterie of wealthy cohorts whose parasitic bidding they attend to as a religionist would a shrine. This isn’t the climate that might make Van Sant’s film seem worth a second viewing.
To be sure, environmentalist safeguarding of wildlife and of other natural resources, conspicuously never far from the Bush administration’s hit list, is in touch with some segment of currently recognizable reality, and this preserves some degree of relevance, perhaps, for the film. However, it is equally true that westerners enjoy flagellating themselves into a froth when they feel their basic prerogatives are being encroached upon, especially regarding land rights and land use—and Van Sant, Kentucky-born, had been an Oregonian for a long time when he made this film, much as Robbins, a North Carolinian, had also long since transplanted himself to the Pacific Northwest. It’s just possible, therefore, that at least one of them takes some of this nonsense seriously.
The film had been Van Sant’s dream project. But the troubled result was hastily re-edited and given a voiceover narration, which Robbins himself supplied. A sense of disaster was in the air. Still, the film’s artistic failure should have surprised, or should surprise, no one, for it largely stems from what a novel can do that a film, generally, cannot.
After all, Sissy Hankshaw, the virginal hitchhiker and model with grossly enlarged thumbs, is an essentially passive character; hers is a pilgrim’s progress, of learning and spiritual growth (think Hesse’s Siddhartha), that finds her acted upon by a series of extraordinary encounters. But unless a film is willing to become dense, perhaps arch, with voiceover commentary, it can’t, as a novel can, lighten the load of such passivity by delving into a character’s thought processes, the area where Sissy is indeed active, or by brandishing the kind of authorial voice that Robbins can easily summon. Moreover, the absolute weirdness of those who help Sissy along on her growth journey—among them, the campy Countess (a misogynistic New York City drag queen whose female hygiene products the Virginian Sissy hucksters), the lecherous “holy man” known as The Chink, and the whip-wielding radical-feminist lesbian Bonanza Jellybean—is nicely contained by the distancing medium of the written word. Such weirdness on screen, though, almost inevitably ends up in the viewer’s face, overwhelming the frames and snapping credibility. Remember Michael Sarne’s 1970 Myra Breckinridge?
Robbins has said, “Personally, I ask four things of a novel: that it make me think, make me laugh, make me horny, and awaken my sense of wonder.” His Cowgirls is likely to accomplish at least three of these aims for the reader. Divested of his own considerable warmth and wit, Van Sant’s film numbs the backside. That certainly wasn’t what Van Sant had in mind to do.
That said, his film isn’t all that much of a disaster; its filmmaking, for instance, is vastly superior to that of either Schindler’s List (1993) or Forrest Gump (1994), the moronic melodramas that won best-picture Oscars for the two years when Cowgirls was first shown and then, re-edited, commercially released. Nor is it disgracefully sentimental like Van Sant’s Good Will Hunting (1997), a film ten times worse than Even Cowgirls Get the Blues. But it’s a mess, especially out West. Most surprisingly, it’s devoid of energy. With the exception of one fine (though brief) performance and one thrilling shot of whooping cranes in flight, it sits like lead on the screen.
The assignment itself, some feel, overwhelmed Van Sant. For the first time, here he was handed a sizeable budget to transfer a “hot property”—not a new work, but a cult classic—to the screen. Also, Van Sant may have felt daunted by the task of sufficiently honoring River Phoenix, his great star (in My Own Private Idaho) to whom he dedicated the film, and whose death by drug overdose (because some irrationally vilified Van Sant for it) may have encouraged in one of the three or four greatest American film artists of the past twenty years a sudden outcrop of feelings of inadequacy. Conjecture aside, the finished piece lacks the assurance, let alone brilliance, of his Mala Noche (1985), Drugstore Cowboy (1989), My Own Private Idaho (1991), To Die For (1995), Gerry (2002), Elephant (2003), and Last Days (2005).
Nor does his usual magic with performers seem to hold. Too mildly sensitive to register, Uma Thurman is a dishrag as Sissy, and at least to my eyes she falls short (in this instance) of the character’s requisite beauty. A line such as the one where Sissy professes sorrow for those whom society has deformed utterly defeats a lightweight like Thurman. Rain Phoenix, River’s sister, is far more engaging as Bonanza Jellybean, one of the cowgirls who get the blues; but, surprisingly, her shooting death fires an emotional blank. Lorraine Bracco, later of TV’s Sopranos, is nebulous as Delores Del Ruby, a prophet both New Age and ancient. As The Countess, the exploitive owner of the “beauty farm,” the Rubber Rose Ranch, where the feds come a-callin’ and a-shootin’, John Hurt—David Lynch’s unforgettable Elephant Man (1980)—projects a flagrant stereotype that grates. Angie Dickinson, as his managing surrogate, is incompetent. Nor is Noriyuki “Pat” Morita anything but cliché as The Chink.
Only one member of the cast shines: Keanu Reeves as Julian Gitche, an asthmatic Mohawk watercolorist deliriously infatuated with Sissy. Julian is someone whose sheer kindness makes him triumphant over a coterie of “friends” who use him. (Did Thurman grasp Sissy’s unwillingness at the last to become one of these vipers?) His golden complexion convincingly reddened, Reeves is hilarious and poignant in his brief role; if only the film had been about Julian! Again, and again, and again: what profound humors and piercing humanity Keanu Reeves brings to his craft.
There are no small parts, only small actors. The strapping Canadian is immense.