Originally Written and Posted at Epinions.com on 12/10/08 w/ Additional Edits.
After scoring a critical hit with 1991's My Own Private Idaho, that also became a hit in art-house film circuits, Gus Van Sant had become the leading voice of the emerging New Queer Cinema movement. Hoping to make a bid in going mainstream, Van Sant decided to make his first big-budgeted film that had the full financial backing and support of a major studio. For this project, Gus Van Sant turned to an obscure yet celebrated novel by Tom Robbins about a young woman with large thumbs who travels around the country while exploring free love and homosexuality. The novel entitled Even Cowgirls Get the Blues was beloved in the gay community that it comes as no surprise than to have Gus Van Sant to do the film. The resulting film would have repercussions for Gus Van Sant's career as he struggled to find mainstream acceptance.
Written for the screen and directed by Gus Van Sant, Even Cowgirls Get the Blues is a road film about a woman with large, mutated thumbs who travels around the country while trying to find love in a world that's rapidly changing. During this journey, she encounters many strange people while going through transformations politically and sexually. With the novelist Tom Robbins serving as narrator, the film explores Van Sant's themes of homosexuality and desperate love that echoes such earlier work as My Own Private Idaho and his 1985 debut film Mala Noche. Starring Uma Thurman, Lorraine Bracco, Noriyuki "Pat" Morita, Angie Dickinson, Keanu Reeves, John Hurt, Sean Young, Crispin Glover, Udo Kier, Buck Henry, Ken Kesey, Roseanne Barr, Ed Begley Jr., Carol Kane, Heather Graham, Lin Shaye, Edward James Olmos, Rain Phoenix, and in one of his final film appearances, River Phoenix in an un-credited role as Pilgrim. Even Cowgirls Get the Blues despite its efforts, is a messy, baffling, and incoherent film from Gus Van Sant.
Ever since she was a child, Sissy Hawkins (Uma Thurman) had always wondered what power her large, mutated thumbs had until the day she hitch-hiked herself into a car. By the early 1970s, Sissy is now a traveler who constantly goes on road journeys with her magic thumbs. Yet, she briefly had success as a model when she got called by her former boss known as the Countess (John Hurt), a transvestite, feminist hygiene product mogul. Traveling through New York City via riding on cars and trucks, Sissy meets the Countess who had hoped to have Sissy meet with Native American water-colorist Julian (Keanu Reeves). The meeting turned into a disaster after Julian had an asthma attack while Sissy got seduced by a couple of Julian's entourage in Howard (Crispin Glover) and Marie (Sean Young).
After that disastrous encounter where her thumbs her due to her anxieties, Sissy is sent on a modeling assignment to a ranch he owns that's ran by Miss Adrian (Angie Dickinson). Going to the ranch, Miss Adrian is dealing with the increasing control from a group of cowgirls led by Bonanza Jellybean (Rain Phoenix). Sissy finds herself attracted to Jellybean and her wild ways which included lesbianism. When the modeling job involves doing something involved with whooping cranes, it doesn't go well due to dueling factions between the Countess and the cowgirls that included the peyote-taking Dolores (Lorraine Bracco). Torn between her love for Jellybean and loyalty to the Countess, Sissy flees to the mountains where she meets a Japanese-American recluse named the Chink (Noriyuki "Pat" Morita). After her strange counter with the Chink, Sissy returns to New York where she had a falling out with the Countess.
Fearing that her thumbs has now caused trouble, she turns to her childhood doctor Dr. Dreyfus (Buck Henry) for help. What happened would change her persona while hearing about the revolt from the cowgirls as they're protecting the whooping cranes from the government. Joining the cowgirls, she helps them in their fight while discovering her own true identity for the first time in her life.
The film is about a young woman's journey to self-discovery yet, with its themes of feminism, social politics, and such. It gets lost in its translation from book to novel but then again, the book is considered to be too strange to be adapted. Robbins story of self-discovery is filled with a lot of characters that often are too eccentric for their own good. Yet, the fault is largely due to Gus Van Sant and his attempts to turn it into a film and the result is very messy. He brings a film where not much makes sense, a lot of it becomes very self-indulgent, and overly pretentious. While the film has themes about homosexuality that were explored in his earlier films. Not much ground is covered in this one because it's often overshadowed by its political leanings towards animal activism which doesn't have much depth either.
Another problem with the film is that with most adaptations, something is missing in the adaptation. The film in its original running time of two hours in its initial premiere at the 1993 Toronto Film Festival received an overwhelming negative response. Therefore, Van Sant and editor Curtiss Clayton were forced to cut thirty-minutes of the film for its official 1994 theatrical release. Yet, something got lost as it's clear that some appearances must've been cut from the original film along with characters who seem to have a much bigger impact. Therefore, if Van Sant was trying to improve the film by shortening it and to simplify the story. He didn't succeed as it's lost in its rambling, incoherent plot while Tom Robbins' narration doesn't really help things either. Some insert shots of Sissy fantasizing and such doesn't feel right and the end result overall is a messy film from Gus Van Sant.
The cinematography of John J. Campbell and Eric Alan Edwards, two of Van Sant's early, regular cinematographers create an interesting look in a lot of the film's exterior shots of sunlight and evening shots. Yet, in comparison to their previous work with My Own Private Idaho, it lacks the atmospheric quality of that film as well as other early Van Sant features. Despite its look, it isn't actually inspiring nor does the editing by Van Sant and Curtiss Clayton that really doesn't have much style with the exception of stock footage of flying whooping cranes. Production designer Missy Stewart along with set decorator Nina Bradford, and art director Dan Self do create an interesting look of the Rubber Road ranch as well as the New York City art scene.
Costume designer Beatrix Aruna Pasztor also does some interesting work with the costumes, notably the cowgirls with their chaps, hats, and shirts to have them look masculine in a cool way. Sound designer Kelley Baker does some nice work in the film's battle sequence and road scenes though it's nothing spectacular in comparison to Van Sant's other films. The film's score by k.d. lang and Ben Mink is a highlight with its smooth, country style score and mix with rock where lang was hot at the time as her score and soundtrack is actually one of the best things in the film.
The casting by Sharon Bialy, Debi Manwiller, and Richard Pagano is interesting but distracting due to its slew of appearances from actors that are really just strange cameos. Appearances from Roseanne as a fortune teller, Grace Zabriskie and Ken Kesey as Sissy's parents, William S. Burroughs as himself, Udo Kier as a commercial director, Edward James Olmos in an un-credited appearance as a musician in a barbeque, Lin Shaye as a ranch maid, Heather Graham and alt-folk musician Victoria Williams as a couple of cowgirls, Ed Begley, Jr. and Carol Kane along with Crispin Glover and Sean Young as Julian's snobby entourage, and the late River Phoenix in one of his final film appearances as a pilgrim. Keanu Reeves makes an extremely bad appearance as Julian with an awful tan to make himself look Native American while sporting an even more wooden performance where he has no clue what he's doing.
Buck Henry is good as a doctor who helps Sissy while Treva Jeffryes is also good as the young Sissy. John Hurt gives a strange, stylish, yet overbearing performance as the Countess with a Southern-British accent that doesn't work while at times, some of his physical performances don't really work. Angie Dickinson isn't very good either as Miss Adrian as she isn't given much to do but complain and act all shocked. Noriyuki "Pat" Morita is pretty good as the Chink, a recluse from the mountains who is very eccentric and fun despite his aversion to politics. Lorraine Bracco is good in a strange yet hilarious role as Dolores, a peyote-taking cowgirl who claims to have all of these weird, psychedelic visions. Rain Phoenix is somewhat decent though not overall brilliant as Bonanza Jellybean as while she is memorable. Her performance doesn't leave much of an impression as she's just there to talk in a drawl and look good in chaps.
Finally, there's Uma Thurman in one of her early leading roles. While it's not a bad performance, it's nothing worth celebrating either. While Thurman can portray being beautiful and naive while having this kind of drawl in her accent. There's not much she's given throughout the film despite being the lead character yet Thurman seems lost and unsure of what to do as the lead. Some of that fault can be due to Van Sant's direction though Thurman does manage to have some fine moments.
Despite its intentions, Even Cowgirls Get the Blues is a messy, incoherent failure from Gus Van Sant. While fans of Gus Van Sant might see this for their own interest, it's clear that this isn't one of his great films as he's already becoming one of cinema's premier directors. Yet, for all of his great films that he's made like Drugstore Cowboy, My Own Private Idaho, To Die For, Good Will Hunting, Elephant, Last Days, Paranoid Park, and more recently, Milk. Even Cowgirls Get the Blues is an interesting failure showing where someone as revered as Gus Van Sant can stumble. In the end, Even Cowgirls Get the Blues is a film that doesn't work despite Gus Van Sant's attempts to bring Tom Robbins' unique, eccentric cult novel to the big screen.
Gus Van Sant Films: Mala Noche - Drugstore Cowboy - My Own Private Idaho - To Die For - Good Will Hunting - Psycho (1998 film) - Finding Forrester - Gerry - Elephant - Last Days - Paranoid Park - Milk - (Restless)
The Shorts & Videos of Gus Van Sant - The Auteurs #4: Gus Van Sant
The Shorts & Videos of Gus Van Sant - The Auteurs #4: Gus Van Sant
(C) thevoid99 2011
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