Midnight Cowboy Movie Review

Midnight Cowboy
Image Source: Time Out

This is our movie review of Midnight Cowboy, John Schlesinger’s 1969 film!

Synopsis Of Midnight Cowboy

Many associate the depraved and bewitching portrayal of New York with the likes of Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976). But the roots of New Hollywood’s urban alienation are noticeable in Midnight Cowboy. Note that the book and subsequent film occur before what we now consider 1960’s iconography. The film does an excellent job at epitomizing the American national consciousness at the end of the 1960’s when the film was originally released. The establishing shots show a grime-infested landscape of never-ending concrete spires, reaching into the eternal grey palette of the sky. The imagery conjured in these establishing shots shows a world in which the idealism of The Summer of Love had little impact on the ordinary Joe of America.

Now, the connection between John Voight and Dustin Hoffman as lead protagonists is the catalyst for the viewer’s engagement with the film. But the main narrative arc of Midnight Cowboy is that of Joe Buck played by John Voight. A strong example of showing and not telling comes throughout the film. We see Joe’s gradual disillusionment with the Cowboy character he has created. This begins with the film’s opening sequence, the epitome of the American dream. Harry Nilsson’s classic Everybody’s Talkin’ matches the film’s initial cloudless blue sky optimistic tone. The young country boy looks for a better life in the big city.

Analysis Of Midnight Cowboy

This story beat is commonplace across multiple genres (Star Wars: A New Hope to name one example). It is poignant that Schlesinger shatters this illusion twice in the film. This first happens when Voight’s character arrives in New York. And again as Hoffman’s character Ratso Rizzo dies on the bus into Florida at the film’s conclusion. It’s just as Joe Buck is imagining a better life for him and his friend. The suggestion is that Voight’s destiny is for a life as a lonesome cowboy, wandering life’s road looking for meaning.

Through minor flashbacks, the audience is informed that the Cowboy image may have been a response to the lovers his grandma took while Joe was a child, who also adopted the Cowboy appearance. One of the minor faults of the film is that we see no greater exploration into the trauma of Joe’s life (including his adolescent relationship with Crazy Annie, whose wistful voice along with Joe’s grandmother dominates the flashbacks) as it would have leaned greater understanding as to why the protagonist feels protected by the Cowboy image. It’s only in the final act of Midnight Cowboy when the protagonists get to Florida that Voight’s character seemingly abandons his persona.


Schlesinger drip-feeds only necessary exposition on Joe Buck through flashbacks. But it’s appropriate that Dustin Hoffman’s character of Ratso Rizzo, is to a certain extent, shrouded in mystery. There are lingering close-up shots casting Hoffman’s character in half-light. These show his lack of impact in response to Joe Buck’s initial juvenile threats of violence. Should a betrayal occur, Hoffman’s character is ready. This suggests that while at ease with the underbelly of New York sleaze, Hoffman’s character has led a life so miserable that the viewer can only guess its extent.

Hoffman’s uninterested delivery of the line “You could kill a man” implies that, to Ratso Rizzo, there is a lack of imagination in murder and that there are greater ways to enact revenge. However, it also shows a strong moral fortitude in a world of few loyalties. Hoffman’s performance and chemistry with Voight are amongst the film’s high points. What should ultimately seem like a pathetic character is visible in a sympathetic light.


The score and cinematography of Midnight Cowboy are also highly commendable. As well as perfectly suiting the atmosphere that Schlesinger cultivates on camera. While the inclusion of Nilsson’s work in the opening of the film compliments the initial tone of the film. The Blues-driven harmonica and orchestral work of John Barry add a wistful ambiance to the film. However, the score is used sparingly which is only a positive.

This allows the scenes where Voigt and Hoffman interact with the tragedy of their circumstances to shine. As well as this, the cinematography is deeply impacting the storytelling of the film. For example, when Voigt’s character first arrives in New York a wide shot frames him as the outsider in his Cowboy persona. This is compared to later in the film where Joe Buck is still framed as an anachronism in his Cowboy persona. Yet he is still dwarfed by the reality of life in New York.

Summary Of Midnight Cowboy

In closing, Midnight Cowboy, though with minor flaws, is a triumph of cinematic storytelling. It’s a sumptuous film, although not for the faint of heart.

Overall Rating: 8.5/10 – Excellent