AFI Dallas 08: Tracing Cowboys

AFI Dallas Film Festival

Director/Screenwriter Jason Wulfsohn and screenwriter/actor Sacha Grunpeter experiment with a unique way of delivering their message in Tracing Cowboys, but its delivery makes to hard to want to discover it.

Cowboys stars Grunpeter in his final performance (he died in a car accident on the final day of shooting) in an autobiographical look at identity, dreams and trying to find both without sacrificing yourself.

The film opens in an non-linear Slaughterhouse Five style timeline that jumps back and forth through time showing the slowly deconstructing relationship of Ethan, played by Grunpeter, and his girlfriend Debbie, played by Megan Charlotte Edwards. Ethan is obsessed with being a cowboy. He watches The Searchers until he can recite the script from memory. He never goes anywhere without his cowboy boots or his hat. He even wants to be a country and western signer either like “Elvis Presley and Johnny Cash or like Johnny Cash and Merle Haggard” because you have to be like somebody in order to be somebody.

Ethan and Debbie are clearly in love but something hiding behind the curtain seems to be tearing them apart. The narrative likes to leave little clues in small chunks along the way like Hansel and Gretel dropping breadcrumbs on the way from their home. It’s a different method, but it becomes so hard just to follow what’s going on that it makes everything else frustrating to follow.

After Ethan and Debbie get into a heavy fight, Debbie up and leaves without even telling Ethan. Ethan starts getting some interesting pictures in the mail, presumably taken by Debbie, that act as clues to where Debbie might be, so Ethan packs his guitar, a few change of clothes and heads off to Mexico to find her.

At this point, the film flips back and forth between where Debbie is and where Ethan hopes to be. Debbie finds solace at a cheap Mexican hotel with a kindly Catholic family while she tries to get away from things. This part is better jointed together with Ethan picking up more clues to Debbie’s whereabouts. One big clue midway through the 98 minute film gets things going, but the flame that had a chance of growing quickly flickers down again.

Some scenes feel slow and repetitive and since every thing Debbie does leaves a trail for Ethan to find, it can also become predictable. There are some surprises that keep it from becoming a complete bore, but most of the climax plateaus, including the ending, don’t make many eyes perk up.

It’s hard for me to be really hard on this film because it has something original and unique to say and it tries to do it in an interesting way, even if it doesn’t work every time. Grunpeter and Edwards also give very in-depth and compelling performances that help drive their passions and the lessons, but its disjointed and jumpy style makes it hard to want to keep chasing.

Grade: C-

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