John Schlesinger’s Midnight Cowboy—a character study of Joe Buck, a Texan who immigrates to New York City with dreams of being a hustler—is an X-rated update of the old fable about the country mouse and the city mouse.
As we watch Buck travel eastward from Texas to New York City, we learn his dreams and watch as they are dashed almost as quickly as Buck loses his wad of cash. Thus, the film’s true message emerges: we live in isolation except for whatever tenuous connections we can make with those around us, and even those are fleeting. Director Schlesinger makes heavy use of flashback to convey this message; only in Joe’s memories do we see what really compels him on this futile quest for connections.
The film opens with Buck already resolved to head to New York City; the only remaining business he has in Texas is collecting his paycheck from the seedy diner at which he worked. Buck then takes to the bus, a scene which prefigures the film’s final sequence with Buck and Ratso on their way to Miami. Once on the bus, Buck’s motives somewhat emerge through an extended flashback sequence where Joe and Crazy Annie make love and Joe is often left home alone by his grandmother. You can sense Joe’s isolation in his repeated attempts to converse with fellow passengers on the bus. His face lights up when a woman asks him for a piece of gum for her daughter and darkens when he awakes from one of his troubled dreams to find that the pair have left.
Once he is in New York City, Joe’s isolation persists as his attempts to become a hustler fall flat: his first trick even hustles him for $20, and Rico Rizzo lifts another $20 off Buck after promising to hook him up with a pimp. Even after acquiescing to the idea of a homosexual encounter, Buck cannot get paid for sex. As the rejection mounts, actor Jon Voight convincingly shows Buck’s deteriorating resolve. What were a smile and a bright face upon Buck’s arrival to New York City grow into a frown and a downcast expression.
Joe finally makes a connection in his relationship with Rico “Ratso” Rizzo, a small-time con artist who is squatting in a condemned building. Their relationship is adversarial at first, but as their luck and Ratso’s condition worsen, they work together to help each other out. After Ratso reveals to Buck that he can no longer walk, Buck is forced to make a decision whether to stay in New York City and become a hustler or to help his friend make it to Miami. Buck chooses his friend and in so doing chooses to look for a new career path, declaring to a dead Ratso that he isn’t cut out to be a hustler.
Schlesinger’s decision to end the film with Ratso’s death forces the audience to contend with the harsh reality that life is not so simple. What can we learn from Joe’s journey from Texas to New York City to Florida? Hard-won friendships are quite often easily lost.