Tuesday, November 17, 2015

AFI Top 100: #43 "Midnight Cowboy"

Jon Voight in Midnight Cowboy (1969)

I've gotten behind in my AFI Top 100 reviews as of late, even though our weekly movie nights haven't slowed down one bit. As we're pushing closer and closer to the Top 10, it's hard not to be more critical of the films that grace this last half of the list. It's also impossible not to notice the affinity the American Film Institute has for movies with lines more famous than the film. One memorable line does not a good movie make. Midnight Cowboy comes in at #43, having brought the world likely the most famous improvised line of all time, "Hey! I'm walking here!", and has the distinction of being the firstand onlyX-rated film to ever win the Oscar for Best Picture (despite that X rating being short-lived; it was eventually changed to R). A gritty, arguably disgusting movie about the dangers of being naive in the big city, with an unbelievable performance from Dustin Hoffman that didn't make me like it any better.

Good-looking Joe Buck (Jon Voight) is desperate to escape his life as a dishwasher in rural Texas. Gilded in glossy boots and a new cowboy hat, he swaggers out of town with his head held high and a handheld radio, catching the first bus to New York City confident he'll get get rich quick as a male prostitute. It takes less than a day for Joe to realize finding wealth may be harder than he'd imagined, especially once he meets the weaselly, fast-talking "Ratso" Rizzo (Hoffman), a conman who talks him out of his money before taking him under his wing. The two unlikely co-patriots band together to survive the unrelenting New York winter as squatters in an abandoned buildingJoe offers Ratso security and company, while Ratso instills in Joe his know-how on navigating the streets and [attempting] to be his pimp.

There may not be a movie that exists that makes New York City in the late 1960s look quite as ruthless and putrid as this one. Certainly that was the point, only highlighted by Ratso's desperate desire to escape it to sunny Florida. Ratso's abundance of personality works overtime to make Joe Buck just as interesting, but it never succeeds. His veiled perspective on reality and the culture shock he experiences are the only aspects that grabs our attention, and both are short-lived. Hoffman on the other hand gives an unprecedented performance, likely one of the best of his career. It works because he does a 180 and goes completely against type. Ratso's sickly nature is a persistent characteristic and gives Hoffman so much acting ammunition to work with. Too bad the tone of the film was so all over the place, it almost doesn't do his character justice.

The stylized flashbacks of Joe Buck's are reminiscent of the tripping-balls sequences in Easy Rider (which unsurprisingly, came out the same year), but significantly more obtuse. The issue with these traumatic rememberings throughout the film is that they're repetitive and abrasive. The subject matterthe gang rape of Joe and his girlfriend at the time, who, it's suggested, is driven mad by the eventwas pushing the envelope of what was presentable in American cinema at the time, and the primary reason for its X rating. My problem isn't with the contentit's with the presentation of that content. Voight's performance is passable at best, glassy-eyed and robotic at worst. And as troubling as it all is, there's something weirdly disjointed and emotionless about it. That wouldn't bother me if it didn't come up so often, but it does, constantly, and it's meant to inform Joe Buck's character completely. We're left with so little context and way too many suggestions.

The film relies heavily on the odd friendship between these two, and how touching it is when they begin to rely on each other. It doesn't pack a lot of other emotional punches, so if you're not moved by them and the trials they experience together, the movie as a whole will be lost on you. For me, I am hard-pressed to find a connection with either of them. I know that isn't true for everyone; even one of our movie guests at this screening said he felt a connection with Joe Buckthe idealism and the desperation... and the fear.

There isn't a lot happening on the surface of Midnight Cowboy, but plenty going on beneath the surface if you're patient and interested enough to look. Hoffman steals the show, and the film's infamous denouement is bound to leave anyone feeling gutted. But it's not a movie for everyone, and I count myself among that group. A controversial Oscar winner, to say the least, it doesn't stand the test of time that the film's on this list should.

Rating: ★★½ / 5 stars

[Watch the Trailer] | [Read More AFI Top 100 Reviews] | [images © United Artists]

Check back next time for #42 on the list, Bonnie and Clyde — or better yet, have your own viewing party and watch along with us!

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