Directed by Geoff Marslett and co-written by Howe Gelb (who also features as an actor and provides the music for the feature) Quantum Cowboys is a trippy mix of animation, live footage and collage that pays homage to the classic Western as well as being a mysterious science-fiction film. Trying to distil the plot in some ways would do the film a disservice, because no matter what one would try to describe it would not cover what the audience will experience in this one-of-kind visual masterpiece.
The story which is only part of the story, involves Frank (Kiowa Gordon) and Bruno (John Way) who are two men shovelling manure in the emerging township of Uma, Arizona in the 1870s. Frank gets it in his mind that it would be a good idea to burgle one of the stores while the audience is focused on the performance of Blacky (Howe Gelb) and the accompanying fireworks. The robbery causes Blacky to be killed (or does it?) and Frank to be imprisoned for three years.
Quantum Cowboys is no simple tale of cowboys running from bad guys – herein supplied by Colfax (David Arquette) and Depew (Frank Mosley) who are operatives who are stuck in the old West because they decided they would mess with time by claiming to have written a Led Zeppelin song. Watched over by Memory (Patrick Page) and his cat, the quartet who are later joined by Linde (Lily Gladstone) are all in some way creating new and multiple realities that aren’t always being overwritten. They are observed by a group trio whose initials mark them out as VCR. Once a phenomenon is observed and recorded by the trio it becomes a fixed point in time. Maybe.
If this all sounds a bit strange and fascinating, there is so much more. Legendary director, Alex Cox (Repo Man) turns up as a rundown preacher, the brilliant musician Neko Case cameos as Alice, a woman whose husband has decided to follow a desert siren in wheeled boat across the land. John Doe plays three versions of a man at a bar called John. Frank keeps accidentally (and sometimes by force) ingesting peyote. And we haven’t even come to the animation style that is so varied and wonderful that is provided by five different animation companies.
What Marslett and Gelb have created is a genre defying, yet genre loving, piece of cinema that addresses colonialism, the greed of men, loyalty and friendship, and how wild the west really can be if the strings of causality are somehow tangled. Knowing something about quantum time travel and Einstein probably helps, but even if you don’t there is so much happening to keep you glued to the kaleidoscopic screen that it can just wash over you.
Even without the science fiction element there is a solid Western with three core characters that you will root for. Frank who starts out as a bit of an idiot has an excellent character arc that finds him becoming firmly aware of how important his friendship with Bruno is. Linde is representative of how first nations Americans are dispossessed by the colonising white man. She’s also the strongest person in the film. Lily Gladstone is always a fantastic presence on screen, and it doesn’t matter if she’s rotoscoped, playing live action, sketched in 2-D lines, made into a moving collage, she’s still a force as Linde. Bruno is loyal, slightly confused, and finds himself suddenly married to Linde and not surprisingly somewhat smitten by her. The Danish cowboy is a form of conscience for Frank as well as being distinctly lovable. Frank and Bruno make for fairly hapless outlaws and the nature of their repeated showdowns in Uma are simultaneously hilarious and filled with a kind of pathos.
Perhaps hilarious and filled with a kind of pathos is a good way to describe Quantum Cowboys. A film that casts the late Anna Karina as the character of Inspiration is not just being whimsical. There is a deep love of art and music that runs through the work. The jokes about Led Zeppelin are great, there are offhand comments about how Schrödinger was mean for even purposing to be cruel to a cat. But there is also something true about our main three protagonists who don’t quite understand that they are in some universal time quandary.
Quantum Cowboys is truly a piece of “you just have to see it to get it” cinema. No dry words can adequately convey what the screen will show. It’s stunning animation, it is sophisticated storytelling, it is a mind bender that will have you on the edge of sensory overload, and it is also a story of people who care about each other. If anything written herein has whet your appetite, be assured the film delivers more than what mere words can describe. Quantum Cowboys is the trippiest of trips, and one you should definitely get a giddy-up on to appreciate in all its weird glory.
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