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cowgirls and cowboys:
even cowgirls get the blues
red rock west

review by rob gonsalves

Gus Van Sant

based on the novel by
Tom Robbins

Laurie Parker

John Campbell
Eric Alan Edwards

Ben Mink
k.d. lang

Curtiss Clayton
Gus Van Sant


Uma Thurman (Cissy Hankshaw)
Lorraine Bracco
(Delores Del Ruby)
Noriyuki 'Pat' Morita
(The Chink)
Angie Dickinson
(Miss Adrian)
Keanu Reeves
(Julian Gitche)
John Hurt
(The Countess)
Rain Phoenix
(Bonanza Jellybean)
Ed Begley Jr.
Carol Kane
Sean Young
(Marie Barth)
Crispin Glover
(Howard Barth)
Roseanne Arnold
(Madame Zoe)
Buck Henry
(Dr. Dreyfus)
Grace Zabriskie
(Mrs. Hankshaw)
Ken Kesey
(Sissy's Daddy)
Heather Graham
(Cowgirl Heather)
Udo Kier
(Commercial Director)
William S. Burroughs
Tom Robbins

mpaa rating: R
running time: 101m
u.s. release: May 1994
video availability: VHS

other gus van sant films
reviewed on this website:

- psycho (1998)
- to die for

Some of the most critically despised movies of recent years -- Walker, The Dark Backward, Shakes the Clown, and several others you've never seen because the reviews scared you away from them -- have been guilty favorites of mine. So when Even Cowgirls Get the Blues, the new film by Gus Van Sant, opened to near-unanimous loathing, I had high hopes. Van Sant's previous two movies, Drugstore Cowboy and My Own Private Idaho, were oddball but terrific; maybe the critics just weren't getting this one. For about half an hour, I was feeling pretty smug: The movie was entertaining, it looked great, and it was shaping up to be one of those films nobody likes except me. (That there were only three other people in the theater intensified my smugness.)

At about the 45-minute mark, though, I started checking my watch, which suddenly seemed frozen in limbo. Despite a promising start, Cowgirls is one of the most boring movies of all time, a ridiculous stew of mysticism, flat satire, and whimsy. Essentially, it's a Warhol film played almost straight, with prancing queens, killer lesbians assaulting their foes with feminine body odor -- all handled without irony. At least John Waters would have milked this material for all the rude humor it was worth. Van Sant, whose accepting, democratic style served him well in his earlier films, pays reverence to characters he should be scoffing at. By the time an old desert sage was saying "The earth is alive," I was praying for Denis Leary to burst in and deflate the movie's hippie-dippiness with a few verbal pinpricks.

Cowgirls is based on the cult novel by Tom Robbins, who narrates the movie; I haven't read it, but it has to be better than Van Sant's adaptation. Cissy Hankshaw (Uma Thurman) is born with abnormally large thumbs, which help her to become the best hitchhiker ever. She gets involved with various weirdos, including a revolutionary group of cowgirls who have branched off from a fat-farm ranch and dedicated themselves to saving the whooping crane. This sounds bizarre enough to be engaging, if handled well, but the movie dies at about the same time the story develops some tension -- should Cissy hit the road again or stay with her new love, Bonanza Jellybean (Rain Phoenix)? Again and again, Van Sant short-circuits the narrative with endless scenes of people discussing visions and destiny -- the sort of conversation you hear at parties where the smell of weed hangs heavy in the air. I can't remember the last time I was so grateful to see the end credits.

Van Sant is a respected filmmaker (though he won't be for long, if he comes another cropper like this one), so he has lured lots of hip actors to contribute mostly meaningless cameos. Roseanne Arnold gets a few lines as a palm reader, Keanu Reeves appears as an asthmatic, John Hurt vamps his way through the fairly offensive role of "the Countess," and many other performers (Lorraine Bracco, Noriyuki "Pat" Morita, Buck Henry, Udo Kier, Angie Dickinson, Grace Zabriskie, Crispin Glover, Ed Begley Jr., Carol Kane) get chances to look foolish. What can you say about a movie in which Sean Young gives the best performance? About the only thing Cowgirls has going for it is k.d. lang's mesmerizing, plaintive score, which has been available in stores for months while Van Sant tinkered with the movie in a bootless attempt to make it watchable. Thanks to k.d., at least it's listenable.

Elsewhere on the independent-movie beat: Red Rock West, a Texas film noir that's gradually gaining a cult, can be seen either on video or at one of the art-house theaters that have begun to pick it up nationwide. Either way, it's a keeper. Nicolas Cage stars as Michael Williams, a down-and-out ex-soldier who takes a job without knowing quite what the job is; it turns out to be a hit, and the man who's hiring him (J.T. Walsh) thinks he's a hit-man from Dallas. You would hate me if I revealed more, except that Dennis Hopper is in it, behaving as anti-socially as ever, and that J.T. Walsh proves in this movie and Needful Things that he is among the great unsung character actors now working. Director John Dahl, who wrote the script with his brother Rick, throws a mind-bending number of curveballs and stages a diabolical set piece involving Cage, a plank of wood, and a truck. Red Rock West: rent it or buy a ticket for it, as long as you don't blow it off.

Let's face it: You will see (or not see) Maverick regardless of what I say about it, but for the record, I thought it was a lot of fun. (Of course, the memory of my ass falling asleep at Even Cowgirls Get the Blues the night before seeing Maverick probably put me in the mood for something mainstream and halfway entertaining.) The movie, as you may have heard, stars Mel Gibson and Jodie Foster; Gibson has been getting altogether too serious lately (Forever Young, The Man Without a Face), and Foster has been altogether too serious her entire career, so the sight of them goofing around is one of the nicer pleasures of the season. Richard Donner, who did his best to keep a leash on Gibson in the Lethal Weapon series, directs Maverick with a light, easy touch, though at two hours and ten minutes the movie could have stood to lose about a half hour. Only screenwriter William Goldman knows for sure how much of the zippy dialogue is his and how much was improvised (reportedly a lot), but again, you will see it or not see it regardless of what Goldman or I say about it. If it's not the first big hit of the summer, I don't know summer movies; I can say with some confidence, however, that Even Cowgirls Get the Blues won't pose much competition.

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