Hannah Green’s unforgettable feature debut Xanax Cowboy offers a searing take on the Western, inviting the audience into a world of ghost towns, graveyards, and the Crisis Response Centre to present a profound meditation on the stories we tell ourselves.
Director Green begins not with a high-stakes shootout nor with a lone gunslinger riding into town, but instead with a deeply intimate scene we feel we are intruding upon: Green herself, getting into costume as the Xanax Cowboy. She is standing in a dark room, nude; Patsy Cline is playing on cassette; she is swallowing pills in her signature leather boots and bolo tie. It is clear that the Xanax Cowboy is not a character mounted for the audience but is rather a vital instrument for the story that she needs to protect herself. It is “a joke I tell myself” and “not a joke I expect you to laugh at.” And no one in the audience dares laugh—we are all helplessly captivated by the striking image of the Xanax Cowboy “swaying like a saloon door in the Wild West of [her] living room.”
Even as it treats serious topics like romanticizing addiction, Xanax Cowboy is riotously funny, brimming with wit and bravado. The Xanax Cowboy has a gift for “rewriting its own tragedy into a comedy.” A man witnessing her lying nude in a graveyard tells her, “you have to be dead to live here.” In a montage depicting “An Email Exchange Between a Thesis Advisor and a Xanax Cowboy,” subject lines between an advisor and a pigeon-obsessed cowboy follow in rapid succession:
RE: Where Is Your Thesis?
RE: Pigeons Have Tear Ducts But Not Sadness.
RE: Have You Written Your Thesis?
RE: I Feel Like a Sad Pigeon.
RE: You Are a Graduate Student Not a Pigeon.
RE: I Am a Xanax Cowboy What Do You Expect from Me.
RE: I Thought You Said You Were a Pigeon.
RE: I Thought You Said I Was Not.
But Green’s greatest strength as a director is her acrobatic versatility. Xanax Cowboy is simultaneously motion picture, performance art exhibit (titled “Crap Factory”), five-act play, hashtag-packed Instagram feed, animated sitcom, mood disorder diagnostic tool, anatomy poster painting series, meditation app user review, and finally, there is an argument to be made that it constitutes a long poem as well.
The Xanax Cowboy’s voice is assuredly flexible, lassoing in other tonal registers so seamlessly they become her own. Attentive audience members might recognize Ocean Vuong’s dryly amused “Ha” after the Xanax Cowboy reflects, “My mind is a china shop and I’m paying for what I’ve broken.” The repetition in “Do you think I want attention? I do. I do” and the musicality of lines like “Little bitch, little bitch, / let me in. I swear I can’t be reasoned with” both recall the distinctive voice of Sylvia Plath, which the Xanax Cowboy slips in and out of as though it were a mood.
The end of the film draws near as the Xanax Cowboy is replaced by a handcuffed girl, “stunned in the back / of a police car / almost as if she was daydreaming.” When Green turns to address us directly, she asks:
Do you sometimes tell a story
about yourself and say it happened to someone else?
Observe. This is not happening to you.
This has not happened to you.
She gently but firmly sets us outside of her narrative, as deftly as her gritty, evocative storytelling reeled us in.
Even as her exceptional debut comes to a close, Green is far from done—in her words, “When Xanax Cowboy ends / I’ll take off my cowboy boots and tell you another story . . . there is still so much weather to talk about, / there is still so much I have to say, you can trust me.”
Bridget Huh is a queer Korean poet based in Tkaronto (Toronto), completing her undergraduate studies at Concordia University. Her poetry and criticism have appeared in Canthius, The Ex-Puritan and Soliloquies Anthology. [provided November, 2023]