‘Phantom Cowboys’: Film Review | Tribeca 2018

Courtesy of the Tribeca FIlm Festival
A melancholic and provocative mood piece.
4/30/2018

Daniel Patrick Carbone’s wistful, time-jumping documentary examines the lives of three American men as they come of age.

Since 1964, Michael Apted’s seminal Up films have followed a group of British children from age 7 onward, checking in on their progress every seven years. (If all goes according to plan, 2019 will bring us 63 Up, the ninth feature in the series.) Phantom Cowboys, directed by Daniel Patrick Carbone (Hide Your Smiling Faces), is a kind of one-off American cousin to the Up films, though the aesthetic is — befitting its evocative title — more liltingly poetic, if no less thought-provoking.

Carbone follows three American men in two time periods, intercutting their experiences as teenagers in 2009 and as young adults in 2016. When we first meet them, Nick Reyes is a high school football player (with the potential of going pro) living in a desert town in California; Larry Young is a lively 13-year-old from Florida who spends most of his days hunting for rabbits in the local sugarcane fields; and Tyler Carpenter is an 18-year-old West Virginian who is father to a newborn daughter and also a fledgling dirt track racer. Seven years later, Nick is working at the local mining plant, Larry is returning home after a jail stint and Tyler, now parent to four children, is making big strides in his racing career.

All of this is revealed in the film’s first third, as Carbone seamlessly interweaves the two periods of his subjects’ lives with lyrical and often cutting clarity. There’s little perceptible difference in image quality (during handheld scenes, the 2009 footage looks slightly more pixelated), so there’s always a potency seeing Nick, Larry and Tyler age and de-age within a cut. And as the facts of their lives come into clearer focus, the visuals take on an emotional heft, especially whenever dreams discussed in the 2009 era are altered or deferred by 2016.

One of the film’s unspoken themes is racial privilege. Caucasian Tyler, for all his economic hardships (his income is primarily dependent on the pure chance of the racetrack), will never have to face the same challenges as Larry (African-American) or Nick (Hispanic). There is indeed a cloud that seems to hang over Larry’s life from first frame to last, though he and his family counter the adversity and prejudice they face with grit and good humor. An offhand gesture by Larry’s mother soon after his release — she puts one arm each around her two sons and gives thanks for their presence — is among the film’s most moving because it comes off like love used as both shield and shelter. Nick, meanwhile, seems driven to succeed on his own terms so that he’ll be free of any larger societal assumptions or judgment. (Perhaps, say, by a president who’d surely consider him sub-human.) As of 2016, Nick has bought a $40,000 car in cash saved up from his mining job and is making similar progress toward a patch of land and a house where he can one day raise a family. Setting realistic goals, honing his focus, and rooting himself in one place are all means of survival.

Arbitrary divisions aside, Carbone wants us to see each of these men as brothers in the ever-declining American experiment. There’s always been a degree of fraudulence to the lavishly ballyhooed vision of the USA as a land of opportunity. (Per George Carlin: “It’s called the American dream because you have to be asleep to believe it.”) And this is much more evidently the case today, with a government in power that openly flaunts its divisive, money-grubbing cruelty even as it pays lip service to the majority of the populace who are hard up or in need. Carbone doesn’t need to say any of this explicitly. It’s there in every frame of his movie, pulsing underneath the gently elegiac surface. Nick, Larry and Tyler are representatives of a faded spirit that once animated this country, and Phantom Cowboys finds, in the complications of their lives, an ineffable mix of hope and horror.      

Production companies: Flies Collective, Silent Runner, Cinereach
Director: Daniel Patrick Carbone
With: Larry Young, Nick Reyes, Tyler Carpenter
Editor: Thomas Niles
Original score: Robert Donne
Cinematographers: Ryan Scafuro, Daniel Patrick Carbone
Producers: Ryan Scafuro, Annie Waldman, Daniel Patrick Carbone
Sales Agent: The Film Sales Co.
Venue: Tribeca Film Festival (Documentary Competition)

93 minutes