Gregory Hatanaka’s “Mad Cowgirl” represents the most visceral and explosive cinematic mind f**k since Stanley Kubrick tossed Keir Dullea into the psychedelic vortex. Rarely has an experimental film come along like “Mad Cowgirl” that can take reckless and daring risks and earn a payback on its artistic gambling with a tenfold return. Theaters showing “Mad Cowgirl” should install seatbelts, because audiences are in for the ultimate wild ride.
“Mad Cowgirl” focuses on the life of Therese (Sarah Lassez), a Los Angeles health inspector whose job takes her to the meat-packing plants and slaughterhouses. It may not be much of a profession, but it has more stability than her private life: a failed marriage followed by a doomed affair with a hideous TV preacher (Walter Koenig, light years removed from the deck of the USS Enterprise) left her isolated in her small apartment with little more than an intense fascination with televised martial arts movies.
Yet something is not entirely right with Therese. In fact, nothing is entirely right. She consults her physician when her health begins to wobble, but the doctor is a Sri Lankan national who speak to her only in his native language. Yet Therese has no problems understanding him and responds to his questions in English, which he seems to understand. Therese crossed multi-culti lines when she visits her mother at an elder-care facility. But her mother is Vietnamese, and Therese is clearly not Asian.
Therese hosts her brother Thierry for a Saturday dinner. Thierry runs a meat-packing plant which is supposedly a family business, but that would suggest Therese has a major conflict of interest in giving him a health code inspection. There are other conflicts of interest: their relationship seems to be more than a bit incestuous.
Therese tries to run from her preacher boyfriend into the arms of the Catholic Church. Yet her behavior in that sanctuary is erratic. She is both fascinated and repelled by the confining space of the confessional, and her relationship with the resident priest and a seemingly helpful new friend from the congregation pinballs between devotion and apprehension.
Throughout this, news reports of mad cow disease stemming from infected Canadian beef blare from every TV screen around her. Even her doctor feels she may have the disease, which would’ve come from Thierry’s beef imports. But for someone who is supposedly ill, Therese appears to be in the prime of health. Even beyond prime – she finds herself getting into assassin-worthy condition to slaughter the Ten Tigers from Kwangtung, who supposedly are the force limiting her happiness and well-being. Has Therese gone over the deep end, or is her reality a subsection of the world which few people realize exists?
In watching “Mad Cowgirl,” it is easy to wonder what is going on. Is Therese genuinely suffering from mad cow disease? Or has she gone insane? Or is she in a dream? Or is filmmaker Hatanaka screwing with our senses? The questions don’t stop, and only intensify as Therese flies into her one-woman crusade against those aforementioned Ten Tigers.
The key to the success of “Mad Cowgirl” is Sarah Lassez’s deceptively placid persona. At first she seems to be the ultimate victim who is stomped over by men. Or is she just a victim of her own delusions? Her emotions spin wildly throughout the film: seductress, victim, villain, exterminating angel, and seeker of serenity are the many identities she takes and jettisons and later reclaims. It is a bizarre demand on any performer to take on so much, yet Lassez carries the complexities of her role without showing signs of fatigue. Lassez has been hovering on the periphery of indie stardom for a few years, but now she can claim stardom with this whirling dervish of a performance. And she is clearly the rare woman who can maintain a state of drop-dead glamour while disemboweling men with chainsaws.
But as with any great film, a fine ensemble is behind its star and Lassez enjoys a peerless level of support. Walter Koenig is hilarious as the slimy, holier-than-none preacher who alternates between manipulation and groveling with equal degrees of abhorrence. The other men in Therese’s life are equally rich: Vic Chao as the irresponsible husband who got away but may have come back, Christo Dimassis as the enigmatic priest whose words curiously fail to soothe Therese, Ron Beck as the lascivious pastor who has a decidedly non-ecumenical interest in Therese, and James Duval as the creepy brother whose fraternal impulses and moral judgments need re-evaluation. Duval’s own mother, Lucie Duval, plays Therese’s unexpected mother.
A veteran film distributor, Hatanaka has brought a great knowledge of film history to “Mad Cowgirl” and the production has a surplus of unexpected references to movie classics. Some are easy to spot (the celebrated flying guillotine of Hong Kong martial arts fame gets a spin) and some are so subtle that it is easy to miss (a visit to the Catholic Church is framed with a sliver of the song “Eternally” from Chaplin’s “Limelight”).
Furthermore, Hatanaka has taken a huge risk in presenting a movie which takes originality to unexpected horizons. At a time when too many movies are strictly connect-the-dots simply, “Mad Cowgirls” is a kick in the shins and a scream in the ear to the enervated indie audience. Its experimentalism recalls the glory days of Resnais and Godard and the groundbreaking American underground icons who dared to ignore the conventional rules of filmmaking in favor of shocking the senses with non-linear storytelling, disturbing imagery, and a whirl of flashy style that also contains a high degree of intellectual substance. It actually goes beyond filmmaking into film provocation. “Mad Cowgirl” will force its audience to think about, dissect and debate its content. It is the rare film that stimulates the brain cells to wake up and flex. It is a triumph of avant garde cinema and a true work of cinematic art.