I…got nothin’. Gregory Hatanaka’s Mad Cowgirl is either brilliant or awful. I honestly don’t know which. Five stars? One star? I can’t give it an average of three, because on eFilmCritic that means “Just Average,” and this movie rips the molars out of “average” and fucks the tooth sockets. Four stars, then. I dunno, man, I just work here.
Mad Cowgirl might be the sort of film that gains clarity on repeated viewings, except that sitting through it even once is more than a little punishing. Hatanaka has crafted a deliberately off-putting and alienating narrative about Therese (the brave and potent Sarah Lassez), a health inspector who scrutinizes beef. Mad-cow disease is much in the news, but Therese, even after looking at rancid meat all day, loves to tuck into rare steak at night. She also enjoys — if that is the word — trysts with various creepy men, including a televangelist named Pastor Dylan (Walter Koenig!) and her own brother Thierry (James Duval), who packs meat.
Therese is all about forbidden flesh — animal flesh, male flesh. When she’s not fucking, chowing down on beef, or vomiting from the brain illness that’s probably killing her (a tumor? mad-cow disease?), she’s mesmerized by a cheezoid TV show called The Girl with the Thunderbolt Kick. She spirals further into self-annihilating sex, consumption, and hallucinatory flights of gory fantasy. Or maybe it’s real, to the extent that anything in the context of Mad Cowgirl is real.
It’s absolutely one of those movies that wouldn’t exist if David Lynch had never been born: the sound mix has the familiar Lynchian rumble of brain cells sliding into irreversible obsession. Now and again I was reminded of Donnie Darko, not only because both films share James Duval (completing his trilogy of Fucked-Up Protagonist Indie Flicks, including Lucky McKee’s May), but because it has a similar restless yen for pop culture and a comparable roster of wackos adorning an aggressively surreal and interiorized mindscape.
The literal read would be that Mad Cowgirl — or “Mad-Cow Girl” — examines the deteriorating consciousness of a woman whose brain is being corkscrewed into bloody spongy bits by bovine spongiform encephalopathy. I would guess, though, that Hatanaka intends nothing so banal. Everything in the movie clings to the mad-cow metaphor like barnacles on a leaky ship: big Catholic guilt, self-loathing promiscuity, overidentification with a cheesecake ass-kicker on TV. Therese is America! A sack of undigested meat, emotion, longing! Or something like that. I can trace the tone and style of Mad Cowgirl to this or that, but the way it’s assembled is fiercely personal and unique.
For all that, I’m glad the disc is getting sent back to Netflix tomorrow so it won’t be in my home anymore. I wonder if Hatanaka would find that response pleasing. Designed to be unpleasant, Mad Cowgirl rams a rough, cactusy finger in your rawest open wound and grinds it around in there for 89 minutes. I sure wouldn’t want a steady diet of movies like it. But I find it oddly comforting that movies like it are still being made.