‘The Outside Circle: A Movie of the Modern West’ Review

The so-called Wild West is having a fashionable moment: Beyonce’s newly released Cowboy CarterAlmodovar’s Strange Way of Life, Scorsese’s Killers of the Flower Moon – even Barbie’s iconic outfit for the real world in Gerwig’s film – show that cultural collective fascination with the fashion and mindset of the Old West are far from exhausted. The Outside Circle: A Movie of the Modern Westdirected by Craig Rullman, is the documentary exploration of what this existence and culture, or at least the major cowboy facet of it, looks like today. 

The Outside Circle: A Movie of the Modern West explores the many mythologies and far-less glamorous realities of the livestock and land management of the cowboy career today – looking at the history of how their ecology and economy evolved to explain their way of life in the modern era. Len Babb is the guide for much of this: a self-professed “buckaroo” and accomplished artist in the Western American realist school who works to capture and synthesize this past with its living present, drawing a line between traditions. His self-memorializing only barely tips into self-mythmaking. 

Still Photo from The Outside Cowboy - A Movie of the Modern West 1
Still photo from The Outside Cowboy: A Movie of the Modern West. Image courtesy of the filmmakers.

The Clash of Cowboy Myth and Modern Reality

This continuation and dichotomy of past and present, fantasy and truth, is pivotal in the film’s two other key subjects’ stories as well. The Murphy family has ranched for five generations in Oregon, and the struggle to stay afloat takes on new dimensions with new modern challenges. Victoria Jackson’s history with the land and its ways of life go back over 14,000 years; a Paiute-Shoshone rodeo champion, she brings in the rich, fraught Indigenous histories that are being reclaimed from colonization as well as the origins of rodeo in ranching skills demonstrations. As she aptly puts it, women have to be three times as good to make their living. 

The Outside Circle of the title refers to the cowboy terminology for wider America – the cultural, political, and socioeconomic regions literally surrounding the Great Plains and ranching states where cowboys developed in response to the need to drive many millions of heads of cattle over thousands of miles. The Outside Circle might paint an overly rosy picture of the community – if the documentary is to be believed, there is no room for exclusion or prejudice in the cowboy profession and lifestyle.

The folksiness of their professions of modest living and the pillars thereof – community, faith, and family traditions – is endearing and wholly believed to the on-screen subjects. There may be some (wilful or accidental) ignorance about wider social movements and what the United States stands for today, but nothing feels excused or papered over. There is a widespread belief that the “red flyover” states covered in this documentary are bastions of right-wing conservatism, but it does not play out on screen at all. Both conceptions are likely exaggerations, with the truth falling in the middle. 

The Outside Circle, however, does not aim to be a balanced portrayal but an in-depth one from its insiders, which is not a bad choice of focus for a documentary running a mere 77 minutes. If anything, the film whets the appetite to learn more about the true story of the American West and life on the trails, about the many racial minority and gender nonconforming people known to history books who made their names and fortunes as cowboys, and about the existential threats facing modern cowboy’s attempts at holistic land and animal management. 

Still Photo from The Outside Cowboy - A Movie of the Modern West 2
Still photo from The Outside Cowboy: A Movie of the Modern West. Image courtesy of the filmmakers.

The Outside Circle: A Movie of the Modern West explores what it means to be an American cowboy

As director Rullman puts it, his aim was to give “an updated look” into the American cowboy mythos, creating a story of struggle “against enormous odds” that nonetheless is an optimistic inside look at perseverance, love, and spirit. This dedication to something higher than themselves is clear in all main subjects and supporting interviewees; as one puts it: “If everyone in America was proud of what they’re doing, there’d be some awful good things going on.” The camera captures them at work and rest, emphasizing the physicality of unforgiving jobs.

This is not to say that today’s cowboys do not understand or unpick the legends they have engendered. They humorously pick apart the glamorous view of life under the open sky, talking about its rough, hardscrabble existences (especially in the late 19th century) and the fact that local townspeople viewed them as the equivalent of Hell’s Angels when they returned worn out and strung out from months on the trail. 

Taking pride in their tack and appearances were dignities they had control over, though both came second to the care of their horses (without which they would have no livelihood). Additionally, while the most space is given to white and Native American cowboys, the parallel traditions of Latinx and Black cowboys is also explored through historical photographs and summaries. Many Black cowboys moved west after the Civil War, and interestingly, so did many white cowboys displaced by the destruction of infrastructure. These postbellum relationships on the range are not fully explored but hint at a fascinating documentary of its own.

Still Photo from The Outside Cowboy - A Movie of the Modern West 3
Still photo from The Outside Cowboy: A Movie of the American West. Image courtesy of the filmmakers.

While perhaps a somewhat romantic view, The Outside Circle: A Movie of the Modern West is a passionate, compelling, and easily digestible work that makes cowboys so much more than the music, films, and fashion that they continue to inspire to this day. One hopes the film captures hearts and minds the way the aesthetic has and gives people a new appreciation of its diverse and omnipresent actuality. 

The Outside Circle: A Movie of the Modern West is now streaming.

Learn more about the film, including how to watch it, at the official website.

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