The tragic backstory of “Tracing Cowboys” likely will color aud response if this demanding indie ever finds theatrical life beyond the global fest circuit. And while it might seem churlish to weigh commercial considerations while talking about a pic whose leading man died on the final day of filming — thereby necessitating drastic restructuring during the post-production process — the fact remains it’s almost impossible to predict what the effect will be on an impressionistic drama that, even under the best of circumstances, would present a serious marketing challenge.
In its current state, pic is the story of a transplanted Brit named Ethan (Sacha Grunpeter), who yearns to be a C&W singer, despite his lack of easily discernible musical talent. Ethan is obsessed by John Ford’s “The Searchers,” in which, of course, John Wayne memorably played a character also named Ethan.
While working on a California ranch, Ethan begins an affair with Debbie (Megan Charlotte Edwards), a beautiful amateur photographer who already has developed sexual relationships with a few other guys in the area. After they have a tiff, Debbie flees to Mexico.
But when Ethan starts to receive photos he assumes have been mailed by her, he sets out to find his estranged sweetheart — just as Ethan sought his niece Debbie in Ford’s masterwork (which is fleetingly represented here by aptly chosen excerpts).
“Tracing Cowboys” unfolds in a dreamy, stream-of-conscious manner, alternating between flashbacks — some happy, others less so — and Ethan’s search for Debbie in a Mexican coastal village. Occasionally, director Jason Wulfsohn and his two leads achieve unvarnished naturalism and raw emotional intensity in scenes that hint at influences as diverse as Antonioni, Bergman and Cassavetes.
At other points, however, auds may feel painfully aware of the passing of time and the opacity of the storytelling.
Part of the problem undoubtedly stems from Wulfsohn’s inability to follow his initial gameplan and use voiceover narration by Grunpeter (with whom he worked on the original script). Instead, following Grunpeter’s real-life death in an auto mishap, the helmer was forced to rewrite the narration so it could be delivered by his female lead, a decision some will view, for various reasons, as a cheat. (A few pick-up scenes were shot with a double for the deceased male lead.)
Had he lived to deliver his own running commentary, Grunpeter might have been able to seem more like a fascinating enigma, and less like an underdeveloped dramatic conceit. (For whatever reason, it’s not entirely clear — unless you have access to press notes or advance reviews — that Ethan actually is British.) Grunpeter’s performance comes off as compelling but, alas, incomplete.
Likewise, “Tracing Cowboys” comes off as that most troublesome kind of troubled project, an intriguing effort that, for reasons entirely beyond the control of its makers, simply cannot fulfill the promise of its best scenes. Still, pic has a curiosity value that cannot be measured or denied. And it’s not intended as sarcasm to note that it may prove most instructive for anyone — academics, film buffs, would-be feature helmers — who’s curious to see how a filmmaker copes with a worst-case scenario.
Beautiful HD lensing by David Morrison — already awarded prizes at the Nashville and AFI Dallas festivals — infuses the Baja Peninsula locations with an almost palpable sense of melancholy and loss.