Ewan Gleadow

Review: Midnight Cowboy 50th Anniversary

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Dustin Hoffman and Jon Voight in Midnight Cowboy (1969)

© Courtesy Everett Collection

A pursuit of a steady job in The Big Apple sounds extremely difficult and near impossible. But for arrogantly confident cowboy Joe Buck (Jon Voight), it would seem that these difficulties have no impact on him. For much of the running time of Midnight Cowboy, it would seem that his story is one of survival, rather than the pursuit of money. He ends up rooming with a man affectionately nicknamed Ratso (Dustin Hoffman), and the two work together to put food on the table. Although Buck’s dreams are in the back seat of the two’s day to day lives, they are still at the forefront of the audience’s perception of these two likeable lowlifes.

Possibly the greatest strength of a film like this comes from the acting. Voight provides some excellent work here as the cocky cowboy, who begrudgingly pairs up with con-man Ratso when his pursuit of becoming a ladies man in The Big Apple proves futile. A great performance from Voight manages to bring us the complexities of an otherwise simple character. Clearly in over his head, Buck’s optimism never wavers as he pulls himself through tough times. Under the direction of John Schlesinger, we see Hoffman and Voight reach new heights in their careers.

Hoffman provides a great performance too, not quite reaching the peaks of his leading role in The Graduate, but playing a strong supporting performance that feels more set up to give Voight some emotive side plot than anything else. Ratso is a pretty great character, although the style of the character does take some getting used to. By the end of the movie though you’d be hard pressed to not love the dynamic relationship the two share on screen, it’s quite the marvel. 

A film that focuses more on its characters than on the plot around them, Midnight Cowboy becomes more a character study than a plot driven piece. A very simple story strings along our characters in relatively strong fashion, but this lack of focus on the plot leads to similar styled scenes that begin to repeat themselves. A real trendsetter for how a darker drama piece unravels, we see the character start with honest intentions, delve into the deeper and grittier realities of their life, and then a somewhat triumphant or tragic return to the equilibrium. Midnight Cowboy follows this to the letter. 

By far some of the most enjoyable work Jon Voight has given us in some time, Midnight Cowboy is a memorable piece of film that relies on strong performances and interesting direction more than it does on its barebones plot devices. A true piece of evidence to suggest that performances alone can elevate a film to a status of pure dramatic enjoyment.