Cowboys isn’t just about the kidnapping of a child. There’s enough big picture here to show how its fictional but believable version of Montana treats its supporting characters. One such character is Faith (Ann Down), the local policewoman investigating the kidnapping. She’s diligent enough in tracing the steps of the kidnapper, Troy Johnson (Steve Zahn). But she’s getting some resistance from the people who may or may not have helped him in the said kidnapping.
Troy eventually figures prominently in Cowboys, and the same goes for his motivations. His child is Joe (Sasha Knight), a trans boy, and his plan is to take Joe away from the latter’s mother Sally (Jillian Bell), who insists on raising Joe in the gender of his birth. Part of Troy’s plan is to ride a horse into the Montana woods and eventually to the Canadian border. But things don’t go according to his plans.
Cowboys belongs to a movie canon about trans people, and a trope, a good one, in that subgenre is watching people have that brain click where the other characters understand Joe’s sexual identity. Joe, in his part, does the same when he discovers Troy’s neuro-atypical nature, and he makes that discovery along with the audience. There’s something innately fascinating and beautiful about those discoveries even if there’s a dangerous element to them.
Much of this takes place, again, in Montana’s forests, beautiful albeit hostile. There are transphobic scenes here, which are triggering yet unavoidable. As great as some of Faith’s scenes are, others play out in an uneven manner to contrast her against her dumber coworkers. The score makes the movie feel tonally inconsistent, as well as other attempts to bring levity. But this is still a movie about a child, and there’s enough seriousness here for balance’s sake.