Though it was made before the election, John Maringouin’s shoestring huckster fable Ghostbox Cowboy can claim to capture the confusion, resentment and sheer strangeness of the moment, introducing a collection of delusional would-be entrepreneurs for whom The Art of the Deal is surely a foundational text. David Zellner, the director of Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter and the recent Damsel, plays Jimmy Van Horn, a Texan in a ten-gallon hat who moves to Shenzhen, China, to make his fortune in the city’s tech boom. Other oddball refugees from the U.S. are there to welcome him, each loudly proclaiming that America has had its day. They weren’t the problem; the country was.
Maringouin’s follow-up to his 2009 Sundance entry, Big River Man, isn’t a documentary but feels like one, shot handheld on DSLRs and performed with convincing down-and-out desperation by its cast, many of them nonactors, who never lapse into the kind of broadness that sinks so many faux documentaries.
A bizarro look at Americans trying to cash in on China’s tech boom.
Ghostbox Cowboy instead feels frighteningly real, from the excruciating pitch meetings where Jimmy hawks his “product,” a little black box (or “trans-dimensional communication device”) that he says can contact the dead, to the boozy dinners where relationships are formed over dumplings and jokes about the Japanese. The film’s immediacy is aided by Maringouin’s use of documentary techniques: We often hear him interviewing characters, whose replies are delivered as voiceover.
One of them is Specialist, an unsmiling young American listed under that name in the credits. He couldn’t find work in America, he says, because employers only cared about degrees and “the fact that I’m a genius really didn’t make a difference.” This is so earnestly delivered it’s more depressing than funny, especially after we see the tiny room he calls home. Jimmy’s favorite word might be “proprietary,” but he’s a veritable Clint Eastwood next to Specialist, a logorrheic nerd with a photo on the wall of a bride we never meet — probably Photoshopped.
Jimmy soon hooks up with Bob (Take Shelter‘s Robert Longstreet, one of the few pros in the cast), a scuzzy fixer with a blond wig and a blindingly white set of new gnashers, who introduces him to factory owner Vincent Xie (playing himself). Vincent rails against his employees (constantly “clowning” him, he says) and admits that he’s lonely, eating every lunch and dinner at the same restaurant. He agrees to manufacture Jimmy’s “machine,” and Bob decides to throw a launch party in Guangzhou.
Cue a montage of hummers and hookers that ends with Jimmy getting booed off stage at his own shindig. The club scenes are intercut with Specialist and Vincent back home striking a deal to cut Jimmy out. In the aftermath of the party, Bob disappears as well, along with the 40,000 Bitcoins that Jimmy brought with him from Texas. Left homeless, he gets a job as the novelty white guy at events, opening a construction site in a fake tan and blond wig and singing (very, very badly) at weddings. If he’s paid at all, it’s in KFC vouchers.
If this all sounds a bit depressing, it is. But it’s certainly never boring, and Maringouin makes the madness feel queasily real. Jimmy eventually travels to a Chinese ghost city, full of empty apartment buildings — located in The Inner-Mongolian Blank Region, a card informs us — to find old friend Johnny Mai Thai, a shadowy figure who seems to exert considerable underworld influence at arm’s length. Johnny and his hangers-on are the sole occupants of a high-rise; the only signs of life outside come from a loudspeaker blaring hygiene PSAs, entreating the unseen populace to keep their “crevices pure.”
Johnny is played by the director’s cousin J.R. Cazet, a tugboat captain from Louisiana making his debut. Bathed in blue shadows by Maringouin and his fellow lensers Justin Donais and Nathan Slevin in a way that emphasizes his cosmetically altered cheekbones, he’s a Kurtz-like figure, doling out aphorisms and loopy anecdotes. He gives Jimmy a mission: to pick up a camel from a nearby town and head east, which Jimmy dutifully does. But when the animal starts pissing at the top of a sand dune, he breaks down and weeps, and suddenly there’s a crowd of locals around him, laughing and applauding and snapping their iPhones. It turns out all Jimmy wanted was an appreciative audience. Vulture capitalists have feelings, too, especially failed ones.
Ghostbox Cowboy has cult oddity written all over it, though it might be too outre even for art house audiences. Tech credits are rudimentary across the board, and the film has a rambling structure — at one point we take a detour to Nevada, where Vincent goes hunting on a business trip. But it eventually coheres as the side characters peel off, leaving only Zellner, who makes for a likable, touchingly optimistic babe in the woods.
Production companies: Lightshow Films
Cast: David Zellner, Robert Longstreet, Specialist, Vincent Xie, Carrie Gege Zhang, J.R. Cazet
Director: John Maringouin
Screenwriter: John Maringouin
Producers: Molly Lynch, John Maringouin, John Montague, George Rush, Sean Gillane
Executive producers: Billy Peterson, David Zellner
Cinematographers: John Maringouin, Justin Donais, Nathan Slevin
Production designers: Molly Lynch, John Maringouin
Costume designer: Molly Lynch
Editors: Sean Gillane, John Maringouin
Music: Casey Wayne McAllister
Casting: Molly Lynch, John Maringouin, Lily Fang, Wang Ke
Sales: XYZ Films