Christopher Machell Criterion

Criterion Review: Midnight Cowboy

★★★★★

Tired of washing dishes for a living in his small Texan town, Joe (Jon Voight) ups sticks to New York City to make his fortune as a high-class stud. On arriving, he soon meets a sickly hustler by the name of Ratso (Dustin Hoffman), and gets a very nasty dose of reality in to the bargain.

Released in 1969, John Schlesinger’s Midnight Cowboy exemplifies the transition from the free-living optimism of the 1960s into the bitter cynicism of the 1970s. Joe’s journey to the big city begins full of promise, yet his naivety makes him ill-prepared for what the city will throw at him. As a tall, handsome young man, he’s confident that he’ll be living off the wealth of lonely older women in no time.

Joe’s luck quickly runs out after he meets Ratso, a hardened street rat with an eye for fleecing wide-eyed country boys. Pretending that he’ll set Joe up with a manager, Ratso instead sends him to meet the neighbourhood religious nut job, in one of many scenes that incorporates the comic, tragic and the surreal. Nevertheless, the pair eventually strike up a co-dependent friendship, with Joe coming to stay with Ratso in his squatted bed sit.

The mean realism of Midnight Cowboy’s story is tempered by its surreal, psychological style. The promising city that encounters Joe as he steps off the greyhound bus gradually transforms into a nightmare space that prefigures the New York of Taxi Driver. It’s telling that as the film progresses, night-time scenes come to dominate those set in the day. As the city’s madness tightens its grip on Joe, the grifting Ratso becomes increasingly sympathetic, a sickly foreshadowing of Joe’s own potential fate.

A hip, loft-set party in the film’s final third appears to offer renewed hope for Joe, yet plunges Ratso further into madness. Hoffman’s performance is a sweaty, whining tour de force, his urchin stealing the film from under Voight’s feet. Ratso seems to embody the sickness at the heart of the city, a feverish, consumptive force that endlessly corrupts itself in order to survive. The final heartbreaking sequence suggest that Joe, at least, has escaped the madness, albeit at terrible cost.

However, his frequent flashbacks and dream sequences tell a different story, one of a strange childhood relationship with his grandmother, and later to the brutal gang rape of his girlfriend and his wrongful imprisonment for the crime. These sequences bring into question Joe’s own perception of himself and reality. In the face of the madness that Joe carries with him before he even arrives in New York, the opening lines of Nilsson and Tipton’s iconic theme song, “Everybody’s talking at me / I don’t hear a word they’re saying / Only the echoes of my mind”, take on a darkly psychological aspect.

Christopher Machell | @Dr_Machell