Tribeca Film Festival: Ghostbox Cowboy (2018) reviewed by Jonathan Berk

There are movies that tell stories in ways that are erratic and confusing, and simply require more from the audience than others. Ghostbox Cowboy (2018), directed by John Maringouin, is definitely one of those. The downside of films like this is that the first viewing can often leave a bad taste, as the audience tries to decipher some meaning from the seemingly pointless moments, erratic camera choices, and uncomfortably loud and shocking music.

Ghostbox Cowboy was an enigmatic film with a narrative that is buried in odd, yet interesting, cinematic choices

The main narrative focuses on Jimmy Van Horn (David Zellner), who has moved to China in hopes of finding investors for his device, “Ghoster”. He reaches out to friends who have found success with their own inventions, and everything looks to be moving in a positive direction. However, Jimmy finds out that not everyone has his best interests at heart.

One of the biggest problems with the film is that it feels far more experimental than a traditional narrative, but it seems to want to focus on Jimmy’s story. The feeling that results is that the movie is at odds with itself, making the story feel a bit long. Aspects of the movie feel like a documentary as characters appear to speak to no one in particular, as if addressing the audience or the camera.

For example: there is a Chinese character who is complaining about how boring it is where he works, and how much he hates his co-workers. He later gets to travel to Nevada and listen to a pitch about bathtub gargoyles (which is one of the funnier moments in the movie), and then asks the Americans if he can play with guns. The scenes that follow show him in the desert with a variety of guns and a few moments of “hunting” some animals. These scenes are erratic and don’t seem to have anything to do with Jimmy’s narrative, nor do they have a true arc of their own – but they are definitely meant to add to the themes Maringouin is trying to get across.

Adding to the blurred line of narrative, documentary, and experimental film that Ghostbox Cowboy is are that several of the characters in the film are credited as “himself”, implying they weren’t characters at all. One such character’s real name is Specialist, but they call him “Spec” in the film. He is an American who claims to be a genius that didn’t fit in back in the US, because he didn’t get a degree or any of the required work credentials. He moved to China and seems to have his hand in a variety of businesses, and initially seems like another character who has nothing to do with Jimmy. However, their paths do cross, and Spec gives Jimmy some suggestions about his “Ghoster” box. Whether Specialist is a real person or just another character in this film is definitely unclear by simply watching the movie. The problem with his presentation, and the other character mentioned earlier, is that they each they seem to take away from Jimmy’s story.

It takes a while before Jimmy feels like the main character of the movie. Once he teams up with his friend Bob (Robert Longstreet), the movie starts to feel a little more traditional, despite that the direction in which Jimmy’s narrative goes is pretty crazy. However, Zellner’s performance does stand out as a highlight of the movie. He is excellent at playing this character who at times seems extremely confident, and then at times seems completely out of his element, as he is clearly afraid of failing and hearing people’s opinions of him. Jimmy has made a marketing video where he explains what the Ghoster does…and then what he says in the video plays a major role in expressing Maringouin’s message, but it is Zellner’s delivery of them that sell the character. Jimmy believes in his product, but everyone else thinks they are just another scam they can use to rip off stupid people. He wants to be treated like a real entrepreneur, and not some dumb cowboy with dreams of success.

Final thoughts…

Ghostbox Cowboy was far too long and the long day of travel, walking and exploring New York that I’d had definitely done did not help with my experience with this movie. While I didn’t like several choices that Maringouin made with this film, I also respect the innovativeness of them. This is a film in which a viewer with a stronger understanding of the business world and the laws of moving an American company to China may enjoy or comprehend more. I think I understand what the movie was trying to say, but I definitely can’t say for certain. For now, Ghostbox Cowboy earns the Not a Total Waste of Time rating.

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