Our protagonist is a 20-something year old ‘stud’ who travels from Texas to New York with the ambition of becoming a high-end gigolo. His cowboy get-up and childish idolisation of Jon Wayne, who by ‘69 had already become the hackneyed portrait of the American hero, epitomises the severity of his naivety.
Let it be known from the outset: Joe Buck (Jon Voight) suffers from the unfortunate and seemingly incurable condition of being a nitwit. While this may sound like an all-too dismissive and unscholarly a take, watch the film, and I’m sure you’d be hard pressed for a counter argument. Further, I wouldn’t even go as far to say that Joe Buck is a loveable protagonist—that said, you can’t knock him for his dogged tenacity to fulfil his dreams (however misguided) and his (generally) good-nature.
With that in mind, as a general rule (applicable to life and film), there is only so long an adult can endure the company of children that aren’t their own (and yes, Joe Buck is a child, and in his presence, you feel like an adult too). So how is it that 𝘔𝘪𝘥𝘯𝘪𝘨𝘩𝘵 𝘊𝘰𝘸𝘣𝘰𝘺 still holds up?
On the page, it is the simple story of a naive man becoming a less naive man through his experiences as an in-over-his-head male escort in New York City. As I mentioned, while the main character isn’t all that complex (nor are his companions), the film still endures and survives multiple viewings.
On the Greyhound to New York, we’re given dreamlike insights into Joe’s childhood which we understand to be flashbacks (though they are presented with the corrupted and biased logic of memory). Now, these flashbacks don’t align with Freudian psychology (or at least Hollywood’s version of it [the only version I can claim to be somewhat schooled in]); but for mine, this works in the film’s favour…
I’m tired of the elementary, Hollywood, psychological equations we so often see applied to characters in film: ‘a sensitive child’ + ‘a macho environment’= ‘a creature of suppression’.
For the most part, these equations are true to reality, however, their deployment in film only over-simplifies the complexities of a character (I understand that in this time-pressed medium, such shorthand formulas are often necessary in communicating the essence of a character, but some variation would not go astray).
It is for that reason that I find the murkiness of Joe Buck’s past all the more fascinating. He is a simple man on the surface, but there’s 20-something years of experience which contribute to the summation of his character, which we’re only permitted a glimpse of, and which we never really understand.
In fact, the reason 𝘔𝘪𝘥𝘯𝘪𝘨𝘩𝘵 𝘊𝘰𝘸𝘣𝘰𝘺 endures is that I’m not too sure how I feel about any of it. It is at once both repulsive and charming, depressing and funny, bleak and light-hearted, disorderly and simple. It’s an abject portrait of late-60s New York, one where you expect to find the characters of a Lou Reed song right around the corner. It’s a film about homosexuality, and even sex as a whole—how, like everything in New York (even the cowboy caricature, Joe Buck himself) can and will be monetised.
And of course, Jon Barry’s theme (just maybe the greatest film theme ever written! Just maybe!) is at once both uplifting and deeply poignant (some needless trivia: Bob Dylan’s 𝘓𝘢𝘺, 𝘓𝘢𝘥𝘺, 𝘓𝘢𝘺 was originally intended to be the theme, but wasn’t finished in time)…
Can’t promise I know how you’ll feel about this one, but you’re sure to feel something…