Today we welcome to this site a slab of USDA Grade A psychotic weirdness. Mad Cowgirl is one of the stranger entries to this site and is likely to remain so for years to come. Many viewers will find this to be the oddest movie they have ever seen. I don't believe that it challenges Dennis Hopper's The Last Movie for that honor, but few movies are as original or as aggressively nonsensical as is this. Did we like it? We're sitting in a tree, k-i-s-s-i-n-g this movie.
Mad Cowgirl will often be miscategorized as horror because it's packed with violence and gore, but it's really a surreal arthouse film whose violent elements are drawn mainly from kung-fu films. Appreciation of it will require both a stomach for blood and some experience with experimental filmmaking, because it has little or no traditional storyline and frequently assaults the viewer with bizarre, nonsensical images.
Viewers tend to dislike movies that avoid linear storytelling and standard plots, but audiences are more forgiving when the film is known to involve a mentally ill character. "I get it," we say, "it's meant to reflect her disoriented state of mind." Main character Therese, played by Sarah Lassez, is a meat inspector who believes herself to be infected with mad cow disease. In actuality, she has been diagnosed with a brain tumor. The severity of the tumor is never made clear, but her doctor's distress indicates that there won't be a happy outcome. This happens in the opening scene, and all reality is in doubt for the remainder of the film.
Some movies require a little preparation before watching. Preparation for this film will consist of running out to the grocery store and putting some nice steaks on to cook. The main characters' mealtimes are the main focus of the movie, and the steak-a-minute pace will leave you starving.
Here's a quick summary of the film's main ideas: eating meat represents sex, and pornography is equated with violence. Therese, as her condition deteriorates, conflates these metaphors and takes them to such an extreme that she embarks on a killing spree that may be partially imagined.
A faux-vintage newsreel short, an explanation of mad cow disease that satirically recommends a vegan diet, plays before the opening credits. The film is structured as a series of vignettes that depict Therese's daily life. It starts with the doctor's diagnosis of Therese's advanced and dangerous brain tumor, and it follows her as she works, cooks, eats, goes to church, visits the doctor, and apparently is involved romantically or sexually with dozens of men. We also see her puke a lot. That could indicate an eating disorder or that Therese vomits so that she can indulge in even more meat, but it appears involuntary and is more likely a symptom of her illness. The early scenes are relatively normal, but there is no clear dividing point between reality and her madness. We can never be sure whether what we're seeing is the "truth" or Therese's own imagined reality.
Therese's perception of reality is further impacted by the time she spends watching television. Her favorite shows are old kung-fu movies and religious programming. She has, or believes that she has, a sexual relationship with a televangelist named Pastor Dylan, played by Walter Koenig in a rare non-Star Trek-related role. Pastor Dylan tires of Therese's obsessiveness and tells her to leave him alone. This creates a void that she tries to fill by church-hopping, but her experiences with new religions are threatening and unpleasant. It is at one of these forays that she befriends Aimee, played by Devon Odessa, who looks suspiciously like a blond version of herself. Therese and Aimee share beef, and a flashback shows Aimee having steak with her boyfriend, whose meat is spoiled. He hits Aimee and is stabbed to death. Therese then wakes up amid violent visions: It is unclear how much of this happened and how much is in Therese's imagination, but it seems likely that somebody died.
If the implied connection between beef and sex is not obvious to the viewer by the middle of the film, it becomes explicit through the orgasmic sounds that she and Thierry, played by James Duval, make as they devour a steak. The after-steak cigarette is there just to drive the point home. Oh, and did I mention that Thierry's her brother? Yup. Thierry's her brother, and the two clearly have no regard for taboos. Then again, Thierry and her mother, played apparently by James' real-life mother, are Vietnamese and she's obviously not, so is any of this what it appears to be? I suspect that many of these nonsensical situations are there simply to confound the viewer and destroy any expectation of realism.
That said, this film has a consistent thread of Asian reference that I didn't get at all. I have no problem admitting that: I found a few published reviews for this film, none of which understood the movie any better than or even as well as I did. If professional reviewers who write for nationally distributed publications can admit that they can't make heads or tails of it, then I don't feel so thick-skulled over this. Anyway, the Asian thing. Therese's doctor, Dr. Suzuki, has a Japanese name but is clearly from someplace closer to India or Pakistan. All of his dialogue is spoken in his native language. Therese understands every word he says, but she answers him in English, which he understands. Some games are being played with nationalities, but that's a part that I couldn't wrap my head around.
Bizarre images abound. Television's effect on Therese's reality is alluded to through an homage to Videodrome in which she offers her breast to Pastor Dylan's televised image. Her killing spree is initiated when she connects sex with violence, an event that occurs when a pair of 3-D glasses combine a theater's twin-screen projection of a porn film and a kung-fu movie into a single image. The glasses unlock a hidden message They Live-style.
References to other films include a The Thing-style recurring image of cell invasion, a Brian dePalma split screen, and a victim who resorts to bleeding on her as in Fight Club. Some actual porn and kung-fu films are visible on television and theater screens but are uncredited. In those situations, the onscreen movie often has more to do with what footage is available for free than it does with any specific reference.
The filmmakers find inventive ways to use their unusual "beef as sex" metaphor. Beef may be sex, but it is not violence for most of us because we buy the meat in a store and are distanced from the butchering. As a meat inspector, Therese is not distanced from the butchering. Her sex and violence are connected from the beginning.
Beef serves at other times as a metaphor for such excesses of American society as nationalism and the consumer culture. American beef is shown as healthy and pure, but beef of foreign origin is dangerous. Beef alternatives, like seafood and liver, are undesirable.
It is obvious that the threat of mad cow disease will be related to sexually transmitted disease, but the movie wisely avoids belaboring that point. When Thierry imports a possibly tainted batch of Canadian beef, Therese confronts him about it like Pam Grier going after the dealer who sold her sister the bad heroin.
Finally, when Therese and Aimee eat beef, it is served exceptionally bloody. Make of that what you will.
When scenes are designed to subvert reality, acting tends to look awkward. This is no exception: It's a director's film rather than an actor's film, but Sarah Lassez gives an excellent performance. A film that keeps the camera planted on its lead actress as much as does this one places a lot of pressure on her to carry the picture. Lassez performs very well in what had to have been one of the most delicious roles in film history.
There is a strong satirical element that mocks our indulgent, consumer culture. The film also targets obsessive religiosity. Therese's religious obsession doesn't seem to be clearly connected to anything else in her life, with the possible exception that it is a part of her world that is accessed through television. There is a well-known psychological phenomenon in which a sexual experience is followed by a binge of religious behavior, but there's no clear indication that this is what the filmmakers intended to express. This movie is anything but focused and pointed, and it's likely that this scattershot aim was intentional. This form of guerrilla satire is a staple of Troma movies, although, unlike Troma's "farting in a cup is a form of protected free speech" productions, Mad Cowgirl actually makes a point.