There may be a moment while watching Ghostbox Cowboy when you’ll ask yourself “Am I missing something?”. Resist that impulse. As a political allegory, Ghostbox Cowboy musters the profundity of an off brand fortune cookie, which wouldn’t necessarily be a problem if the film was any fun watch. But it isn’t. Ghostbox Cowboy is an aggressively unpleasant film that seems more interested in punishing its audience than delivering a cogent plot.
The film’s premise is straightforward enough. It follows Jimmy Van Horn (David Zellner), a would-be entrepreneur from Texas who moves to China to sell a cheap plastic box that he says can help people communicate with the ghosts of their loved ones. Now, while selling electronic snake oil to superstitious foreigners might seem like a great idea, things go south for Jimmy almost immediately, and he soon finds himself struggling to scrape by in a world of capitalism gone wild. It’s an admittedly intriguing and timely premise, one that feels oddly similar to another festival premier The Saint Bernard Syndicate. But the film seems to actively squander its own potential, turning itself into an overlong sojourn of self-indulgence.
Ghostbox Cowboy is the narrative film debut of documentary filmmaker John Maringouin, who wrote the story with Zellner. The film has an almost documentary look to it, which is a nice way of saying that it looks like crap. The whole thing feels like it was shot on video cameras circa 1999. I simply can’t imagine a world in which this was the best they could do, so I have to imagine Maringouin chose for the film to look hideous, I just can’t imagine why. Maringouin’s transition into narrative filmmaking hasn’t gone smoothly. Without a real life drama to follow, the film meanders repetitively for nearly two hours, before graciously coming to an end.
While Maringouin’s deficiencies can be attributed to a lack of experience, Zellner’s are harder to explain. David Zellner was the writer / director of Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter, one of 2014’s most intriguingly beautiful and original films, so his involvement here is puzzling. His performance as Jimmy is unremarkable, but I don’t know if you could hope for much better given the material. The character of Jimmy is actively unlikeable and unsympathetic, which isn’t surprising, given he is a moronic charlatan. To be an entrepreneur is the best thing you can be in a capitalist society, and Jimmy is defined by his desire to be one, but there’s a complete lack of inner life beyond that. Ghostbox Cowboy is a character piece of sorts, but its central character has the substance of single ply toilet paper. There’s just not enough there.
Verdict: 1 out of 5
You can imagine how a version of Ghostbox Cowboy could be successful. This isn’t that version. It’s a humorless black comedy that clearly sees itself as a cautionary tale, and I suppose it is, just not in the way it means to be. John Maringouin’s film is unpleasant and exhausting to watch. I can’t imagine why you would want to, maybe you’re morbidly curious or looking to have a horrible date, but if Ghostbox Cowboy seems like something you’d like to spend two hours of your life on, it’s premiering at the Tribeca Film Festival.