Jimmy Van Horne (Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter director David Zellner) is a Texan with big dreams of striking it rich in the wild west that is the booming Chinese tech market. Armed with nothing more than a somewhat harebrained product idea and forty grand in bit coin, he moves to China but quickly discovers that it is not as easy to cash in as it appeared half a world away. Perhaps trusting to a fault, Jimmy soon finds himself taken advantage of by his potential investors ad abandoned by his American ex-pat contacts once it becomes apparent that he won’t be making them any money. What starts off as a riff on John Schlesinger’s Midnight Cowboy (1969) mutates into a post-modern Apocalypse Now as penniless, homeless and a stranger in a strange land, Jimmy tries to find his way though he has no idea of where he is trying to get.
Directed by John Maringouin, Ghostbox Cowboy is a frustrating film. It is a beautifully shot film, all done on location in China. Maringouin takes us places that we haven’t seen in film before, alien landscapes to even experienced cinephiles. (One gets the impression that this low budget production may have had portions of it shot guerilla-style, with no real filming permits or other official permission acquired first.) The use of handheld film often imparts a lucid dream-like quality as Jimmy moves through the city observing people and customs far different than what he is used to back home. At other times, the film feels like a quasi-documentary, with dialogue that first appears to be confessional voice overs. It is only when there is a shot that could not have been captured by a traditional documentary crew is the illusion shattered.
Maringouin does a very good job at depicting the loneliness and isolation that Jimmy is feeling, especially as his fortunes to continue their downward spiral. Unfortunately, he succeeds a bit too well at this, as he isolates Jimmy from the viewer, making it hard to empathize or form any type of connection with him. This intensifies through the rather aimless wanderings of its third act to the point where by the end of the film, it is hard to care about Jimmy’s ultimate fate or the journey that got him there.