Analysis of Midnight cowboy

Summary Midnight Cowboy is a character study of Joe Buck, a Texan dishwasher and aspiring gigolo who moves to New York City to make a fortune. He struggles to make ends meet, resorting to male prostitution to survive. Joe is accompanied by Ratso Rizzo, a small-time con man with a heart of gold. Their relationship is complex and evolves over the course of the film. The story follows their misadventures in New York City as they try to survive and make a better life for themselves. The film explores themes of loneliness, friendship, identity, and the American Dream.

Screenplay Story Analysis

Story Critique The story explores important themes of masculinity and sexual expectations while following the journey of a struggling man trying to make it in New York City. However, the pacing is slow, and some scenes feel disconnected and unnecessary. The characters and their motivations could have been developed further. The ending feels abrupt and unsatisfying.
Suggestions: The story could benefit from clearer character development and tighter pacing. The themes could be explored more fully through more impactful scenes and dialogue. The ending could be revised to provide a more satisfying conclusion, perhaps by tying back to the themes established earlier in the screenplay. The relationships between the characters could also be explored in more depth to give the story more emotional weight.

Note: This is the overall critique. For scene by scene critique click here

Characters in the screenplay, and their arcs:

Joe Buck

Joe Buck is a naive, young cowboy with boyish charm and a good sense of humor. He dreams of making it big as a male prostitute in New York City. Joe is eager and willing to work hard, but lacks direction and purpose in life. He is haunted by memories of his past and struggles to make sense of his place in the world. Joe is often flirtatious and charming, but seems lost in the fast-paced city. He is well-meaning, but often puts his foot in his mouth and doesn't realize the impact his words have on others.


Ratso is a small-time con artist who is always looking out for himself and willing to risk Joe's opportunity for his own gain. He can be manipulative and dishonest, but also has a softer side and is desperately lonely. He cares deeply for Joe and is always looking out for him, but can be selfish and jealous at times. Throughout the movie, Ratso's health deteriorates and he becomes increasingly reliant on Joe for help.


Joe is a male prostitute living in New York City who is tough, but also vulnerable and desperate for a way out of his situation. He is fiercely independent, but also deeply affected by his traumatic past. He has a short fuse and is often confrontational, but is also loyal to his friend Ratso. Despite his tough exterior, Joe is curious, adventurous, reflective, and nostalgic. He is fascinated by the unconventional, but also conflicted about his relationship with Ratso and his own past trauma. Joe is determined and desperate to survive and get money for his friend, but is also starting to chafe against his dream of being a cowboy and is somewhat lost and unsure of what to do without Ratso by his side.

Character Arc Critique Suggestions
Joe Buck Joe starts the movie as a confident and proud cowboy leaving his old life behind to start anew in New York. However, he quickly realizes how difficult it is to survive as a male prostitute and begins to question his life choices. Throughout the movie, Joe faces emotional conflicts with his past and his present life choices. He starts to form a close and unlikely friendship with the con artist, Ratso, who helps him through some tough times. Despite the struggles, Joe remains determined to succeed in the city and starts to gain more confidence as a hustler. By the end of the movie, Joe has come to terms with his past and present, and decides to return home to Texas to start fresh with a new perspective on life. The character arc for Joe Buck is well-written and captures the essence of his internal conflicts throughout the movie. However, it would be beneficial to have more scenes that explore his emotions and inner struggles in depth. There are moments where the character feels one-dimensional and could use more development.
To improve the character arc, it would be helpful to have more scenes that delve into Joe's emotional and mental state. This could include flashbacks or dream sequences that help us better understand his traumas and what motivates him to become a male prostitute. Additionally, having more of a focus on his relationships with other characters, such as his girlfriend Cass or his friend Ratso, would give more depth to his character arc.
Ratso Ratso's arc in the screenplay begins as a selfish and manipulative con artist who sees Joe as a potential partner in crime. As he becomes closer to Joe, he begins to care for him and becomes co-dependent on their relationship. However, as his health deteriorates, he becomes increasingly desperate to leave New York and go to Florida. He becomes jealous of Joe's potential future without him and fears being left behind. In the end, Ratso dies on the bus, leaving Joe alone and mourning the loss of his friend. While Ratso's character arc is well-formed, there could be more exploration of his backstory and why he became a con artist in the first place. Additionally, his relationship with Joe could be further developed to show the full range of their co-dependent relationship.
To improve Ratso's character arc, it could be helpful to include flashback scenes that show his past experiences and what led him to become a con artist. The relationship between Ratso and Joe could also be explored through dialogue and action, showing the full range of their co-dependency and how they rely on each other for survival. Additionally, including more scenes that show Ratso's softer side could make his character more complex and sympathetic to the audience.
Joe Joe starts out as a down-on-his-luck male prostitute struggling to make ends meet in New York City, but is also fiercely independent and distrustful of others. As he encounters various characters and situations, he becomes more reflective, curious, and adventurous, and begins to see the potential for a better life. He becomes loyal to Ratso and wants to take him to the party, and is intrigued by Shirley's advances. At the party, he enjoys being the center of attention but also becomes conflicted about his past trauma and his relationship with Ratso. Later, he is desperate to leave Ratso behind and upgrade his life. Despite losing interest in what Towny is saying, he is emotionally attached and willing to do whatever it takes to get money for his friend. In the end, he is struggling to make a life for himself without Ratso by his side. The character arc is well-developed, but could benefit from more consistency. Joe's character is complex, but some of his actions and motivations are not always clear or consistent throughout the movie. Additionally, some of the transitions between his different states are abrupt and could be smoother.
To improve the character arc, it might be helpful to clarify some of Joe's motivations and emotions throughout the movie. Consistency in his behavior and actions can also help make the transitions between his different states smoother. One way to do this might be to have more scenes of Joe alone, reflecting on his thoughts and emotions. This can also help deepen his emotional complexity and make him even more relatable to the audience.

Theme Theme Details Themee Explanation
Masculinity and Sexual DemandsThe TV moderator discusses the masculinity crisis and the increasing sexual demands on American men and women share their opinions. Joe Buck, surrounded by pinup girls, moves to NYC and struggles to find work and a place to stay, resorting to washing his feet in a public bathroom. He also spends his last night with Cass, which ends in a heated conversation when he jokes about asking her for money. Joe later becomes a sex worker and has a traumatic nightmare about his past.The theme of masculinity and sexual demands is explored throughout the screenplay, showcasing the struggle of men and their pursuit of sexual desires, leading to Joe's descent into a life of prostitution which highlights the societal pressures on men and their struggles to conform to masculine norms.
Poverty and DesperationJoe Buck is a dishwasher in Texas who dreams of moving to NYC. However, he struggles to find work, accommodation, and meet his needs and befriends a con artist, Ratso. Together, they scam rich women at a hotel, sell blood, and attend a funeral before receiving an invitation to a party where Joe experiments with drugs. They later move to Miami, where Ratso dies during the journey leaving Joe alone.The theme of poverty and desperation is showcased throughout the screenplay, highlighting the struggles of Joe and Ratso as they try to survive in a world that continually shuts them down and demeans them due to their social status. It reveals the harsh reality of living in poverty, facing desperation, and the lengths individuals will go to survive in America.
Friendship and LonelinessJoe and Ratso become close friends and depend on each other for survival. However, their friendship is challenged when Ratso suggests living together in a condemned building with no utilities, which Joe angrily rejects. They later face tensions as they argue while scamming rich women at a hotel. Ratso's health declines while Joe spends time with a man named Towny. Ratso dies during the journey, leaving Joe alone.The theme of friendship and loneliness is shown throughout the screenplay, exploring Joe and Ratso's evolving relationship and how their dependence on each other shapes their journey in America. It reveals the importance of human connections and the impact of losing them, leading to loneliness and isolation.

Screenwriting Resources on Themes


Site Description
Studio Binder Movie Themes: Examples of Common Themes for Screenwriters
Coverfly Improving your Screenplay's theme
John August Writing from Theme

YouTube Videos

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Story, Plot, Genre, Theme - Screenwriting Basics Screenwriting basics - beginner video
What is theme Discussion on ways to layer theme into a screenplay.
Thematic Mistakes You're Making in Your Script Common Theme mistakes and Philosophical Conflicts