Concrete Cowboy opens with its main character Cole (Caleb McLaughlin) receiving a lecture from his mother on how he needs to improve himself after getting himself kicked out from yet another school. The best way for him to do this, she says, is for him to live with his father, Harp (Idris Elba). Cole wants nothing to do with the man, who has so far stayed out of his life, but his mother doesn’t give him a choice. When Cole finally arrives at his father’s home in eastern Philadelphia and enters his house, the first thing he notices is a horse standing in the living room. Here, Harp lays down the conditions for Cole’s stay: to live with him, Cole must work with his father and other cowboys to care for the horses abandoned by the city of Philadelphia.
The club that Harp belongs to is based on a real-life organization in Philadelphia, the Fletcher Street Urban Riding Club, which strives to teach inner city youths how to care for horses. It’s a potentially fascinating subject for a film’s story; unfortunately, this story lacks the requisite urgency to otherwise compel its audience.
Many of the ingredients needed for a great film are here. Idris Elba gives a restrained, emotional performance as Cole’s estranged father, and Cole is played ably by Caleb McLaughlin, who proves himself a capable leading man. But Concrete Cowboy, unlike more well-regarded films of its ilk, fails to spin either figure into a compelling protagonist. For her film The Rider, Chloe Zhao used actual rodeo star Brady Jandreau and his injuries to startling power. Bruce Dern and Matthias Schoenaerts both give terrific performances in The Mustang, but were buoyed by the riveting characters they portrayed, the owner of an untrainable horse, and the convict who bonded with it.
Both films’ protagonists had an intensity that kept one glued to the screen, an intensity that both Harp and Cole lack. It’s not to say that the film should have adhered to the searing drama seen in The Mustang and The Rider. Indeed, the film’s best scenes are of its heroes going about their daily lives of caring for their horses and talking shop. Of note is a scene where the black cowboys sit around a firepit and discuss the systematic whitewashing of blacks from American cowboy culture.
But it isn’t enough to rescue the film from its languid pace. Watching Concrete Cowboys, there are certainly less productive ways to wile away two hours of one’s life. But it’s the kind of film that one forgets the minute it’s over