Nobody has cash in “Midnight Cowboy.” Nobody is reasonably able to pay their debts. This is a New York not built of extravagant riches or fast-lane dreams, but an empty facade of a city, whose lumber and steel assemble nothing more than empty, skyscraping carcasses for the bruised and battered to hang their hats. Scorsese’s “Taxi Driver” is the best depiction of the seediness of New York, but John Scheslinger’s “Midnight Cowboy” is the most raw for showing the clash of the dreamers and this nightmare city.
A product of the French and American New Wave filmmaking traditions, “Midnight Cowboy” nearly shoots you in the face with its counter-culture vibe and summer-of-loveliness. This is the anti-“The Graduate,” a film that shows that not all sixties dreams were worth becoming a reality. We have two protagonists who are bottom feeders, united by a sad, shared dream of becoming better and wealthier bottom feeders. Jon Voight’s Joe Buck isn’t even a successful hustler, he only manages one real prostitute hook-up, and by that point his devotion to Dustin Hoffman’s Ratso thwarts any future attempts at hooking. “Midnight Cowboy” proves that something pure can blossom in this decaying New York, but it won’t be long till a grimy shoe stomps all over it.
The film follows Joe as he triumphantly quits his menial Texas dishwashing job and hops a bus to New York in hopes of bigger things. Joe’s demeanor is friendly but he’s plagued by a troubled sexual past with his grandmother and a mentally ill girl. These moments clearly shaped Joe, as he wastes no time trying to hustle ladies out of their undergarments and money out of their purses. His dim-witted, upbeat nature still can’t mask the fact that he isn’t quite cut out for making it in the real world, let alone New York.
Enter Ratso, an ailing, wannabe con-man you’d expect to be leaning on the door of a strip club if his leg wasn’t mangled. Ratso cons Joe out of a few dollars, but later invites the out-of-towner to crash on a stolen YMCA mattress at his dilapidated halfway house. The two then turn whatever tricks needed to survive, soothed by the prospect of maybe making it down to Florida to escape this misery.
It’s a harrowing film, one that you could easily mistake for a comedy because of Voight’s smiles and Hoffman’s method acting nature. But the film is levied by intelligent takes on sexuality, religion and consumerism, along with Schlesinger’s experimental direction, evoking both “Easy Rider” and “Mean Streets” vibes As much as we could look down at Joe and Ratso for their foolishness and poor decisions, it’s hard not to look at that cigarette-stained puddle by their feet and see ourselves in its reflection.