Even Cowgirls Get the Blues

I'm all thumbs
Gus Van Sant
Uma Thurman, John Hurt, Rain Phoenix, Lorraine Bracco
The Setup: 
Adaptation of Tom Robbins’ novel about a woman with huge thumbs.

Me and my friend are often intrigued by the movies that are considered awful, especially when they’re by a good director, and there’s a chance that the director may have had an idea that just didn’t come off or was trying to be a little too ambitious and audiences just didn’t get it. And we’re always open to movies that tend toward the homo, so somehow we found ourselves putting the notorious failure Even Cowgirls Get the Blues to the top of our list.

We open with our heroine Sissy as a young girl. She has enormous thumbs that reach to the end of her fingers. During the first hour here I found myself just staring at her quite obviously fake thumbs. They were quite distracting. Her mother, Grace Zabriskie, takes her to the doctor and is already trying to find a husband for her. Then we have the credits, in which we see that this movie has a star-studded indie cast, and is dedicated to River Phoenix. If River could do such things from beyond the grave, he would probably want to send it back.

However, with the credits not quite over yet, I turned to my friend and says “I’m really liking the style.” This was at that still-hopeful early moment when you think that maybe everybody was just wrong, and this film is a misunderstood masterpiece.

We then see adult Sissy, now 29, as she demonstrates her hitch hiking abilities. It seems that her thumbs give her magical abilities over cars and trucks and even airplanes [which was astonishingly stupid] and soon she’s in a car with this guy delivering a long speech about how she’s the best hitch hiker there is and when she hitches she exists in a state of grace.

Then she is somehow called to meet with some relation, The Countess, this drag queen modeling herself on a member of the Royal Family, played hilariously by John Hurt. He is obsessed with the horrifying odor or women’s vaginas, saying they smell “like an overchlorinated pool,” and he wants Sissy to be a spokesmodel advertising feminine hygiene products. He wants her to meet this guy, and she finally agrees. Sissy is half Indian [which, as you know, means that she is automatically quite spiritually connected], and this guy is supposed to be full Indian. And wouldn’t you know, it’s Keanu Reeves with an awful spray-on tan. He has an attack the minute Sissy takes his hand, which is supposed to be real but is played off as though he is overwhelmed by her awesome womanly power. Then they have this swingin’ party [the hilarious Carol Kane and Crispin Glover are in attendance], and you’ll notice at one point this party doll who is all gotten up decides, in the middle of the party, to peruse Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint. They bring Keanu out to the ambulance and Kane is hilarious when she says to Sissy “It’s not [points accusingly right at her] YOUR fault.” Then Sissy goes inside and falls asleep [or was drugged] and wakes up in a sex scene with Crispin and the Roth-lover.

Then she returns to see the Countess and Hurt gives a long and hilarious about the mating dance of the whooping crane. He wants Sissy to go out to the Rubber Rose ranch, where the cranes are, to shoot a commercial. She used to be a model before she became a full-time hitch hiker. So she goes.

Now, have I failed to mention that this movie features a score by k.d. lang? That is annoying? And distracting? So now we meet Lorraine Bracco as Delores, this whip-crackin’ cowgirl who was promised three visions, and in the second one sees Sissy coming to the ranch. Then Sissy, just past a road sign that honestly says “entering sisters,” decides to just lay down there by the side of the road and masturbate, and has a vision of this woman Bonanza Jellybean, played by Rain Phoenix. Then Angie Dickinson shows up and takes her to the ranch, where Bonanza, obviously the lead lesbian of the ranch, says that all little girls dream of being cowgirls. So I guess Disney is totally off-base with that while Princess thing they’ve been pushing. It’s amazing they’ve stayed in business this long.

Then Bonanza hypnotizes two rows of chickens by swinging them in a circle. Then Sissy dresses as a whooping crane and makes a commercial. Then Debbie makes a female superiority speech and says that it’s up to the more advanced women to teach the poor, inferior men.

SPOILERS [UH, I GUESS] > > > Then the cowgirls seize control of the Rubber Rose by turning their pussy smell against the Countess. There’s big shootout, then they’ve won, and they also have control over the whooping cranes, which they hide. During the coup, Sissy, who feels constrained at the ranch, makes her escape and starts hitching again.

Then there’s some scene where the Countess smacks Sissy and so Sissy whacks the Countess, apparently enough to give her brain damage. Sissy feels so bad—he thumbs were never supposed to be used for violence!—so she has them surgically removed. During this time we’ve discovered that under the cowgirls’ influence, the whooping cranes have learned to love close together, in peaceful harmony! But it’s not so much the cowgirls’ civilizing influence as it is that they’ve been giving the birds Peyote. Then there’s some confrontation and Bonanza is going to throw down her guns in front of a line of jumpy men, and she decides to pull them out way high and hold on to them while saying “Whelp, guess I won’t be needing THESE anymore...” and I guess we’re supposed to be shocked when they misinterpret her gesture and shoot her. This releases a vision in stock footage of a bunch of whooping cranes flying around. Then something more happens regarding a bag and a fire but I wasn’t paying attention because it seemed like everything else in the movie, except then the screen went blank and the credits started playing.

I didn’t hate it. After a while, you recognize that none of it is going to make any sense and you just kind of fall into a somewhat pleasant trance and just watch it unfold. Of course, with this is also a feeling, about 50 minutes in, that you could just turn it off at any time and not miss much of anything. Since the characters are all such flat paper dolls, no emotional resonance or interest in their fate develops, so their travails toward the end have no impact. Another distancer is the fact that many of these women do not ever seem to have acted before. So you’re just kind of watching this dress-up pageant and it may amuse you for a while, or start to remind you that you have other things you need to get done.

The DVD is bare bones, just a trailer and some trailers for other movies, so there’s no information on what Van Sant was thinking or going for in making this. So you just kind of scratch your head and wonder why. I’m glad Uma takes these roles, and I guess I’m glad someone is out there making whacked-out shit like this, but that still doesn’t necessarily mean I want to see it.

Should you watch it: 

I would think long and hard about that one, and consider what your time really means to you.