The vivid contrasts between the parched countryside of inland Australia and the throbbing lights and seductive beaches of Sydney echo the conflict playing out inside the head of the damaged protagonist in Lonesome. Writer-director Craig Boreham’s sexually explicit queer cowboy odyssey refuses to judge its corn-fed principal character, even as he blurs the line between desire and transaction, at his lowest point convincing himself that he deserves degradation, not love. At its most compelling, the film is an intimate study of emotionally scarred strangers who find communion through the flesh that opens a tentative window to their hearts.
If some of the acting is a bit stiff and the plotting becomes wayward — indulging in self-punishment clichés in a jarring late interlude by lurching into BDSM territory with a disappointingly heavy hand — Lonesome is kept on track by the feeling invested in its troubled central love story. That romantic core, coupled with the film’s sex-positive attitude and unselfconscious embrace of nudity, should fuel ongoing demand at LGBTQ festivals following back-to-back screenings at Provincetown and Frameline.
Looking like an archetypal wanderer right out of a Western, Casey (Josh Lavery) ambles along deserted country roads in the soft dawn light, dressed in regulation blue jeans, white T-shirt and cowboy hat. The casual ease with which he hooks up with a stranger in a truckstop restroom paints him as a Joe Buck for the Grindr age, while the film’s title — if not its tone — also evokes Andy Warhol’s Lonesome Cowboys.
Arriving in the city, Casey crashes a party, charges his phone, helps himself to food and a bottle of Jack and then slips away before anyone can figure out he’s not invited. Grindr is his means of securing both sexual gratification and a place to stay. He turns up at one assignation to find the partying already underway, happy enough to make up a three-way with minimal preamble (“Get your gear off, mate”), and then sticking around for the night with the host, Tib (Daniel Gabriel), once the action is over.
In response to Tib’s questions about what brought him to the city, Casey shrugs, “I’ve never seen the ocean.” But when Tib, who’s too wired to sleep, offers to drive him to the beach, Casey declines, saying he’d prefer to go alone. That solo excursion soon shows the extent of the trauma hidden behind his easy swagger in a quietly sorrowful scene backed by Tony Buchen’s melancholy electronic score and intercut with images of Casey naked on the rural plains. Via a call home to his mother during which Casey remains silent, we also learn that his father’s violence drove him away. “Wherever you are, you should stay there,” his mother warns him, her voice cracking with pain.
The circumstances that forced Casey to leave the cattle farm where he grew up and the raw grief he carries with him are revealed in fragments as he gets to know Tib, helping out on odd jobs that range from furniture deliveries to gardening. Tib also opens up about his own difficult family life. His thuggish white father has moved on and started a new family, while his Black immigrant mother has been deported, with Tib handling the application process to allow her re-entry into Australia.
While it’s the most conventional part of Lonesome, the deepening bond between these two bruised young men is also its strongest element, with Gabriel giving the most nuanced performance as polyamorous Tib. The sexual connection between them is palpable, but the possibility of something beyond that grows steadily as they spend more time together. A dreamy scene in which they break into a swimming pool after hours and float around together is just one example of Boreham and DP Dean Francis’ gift for atmospheric visual storytelling.
The story loses some traction and starts drifting once friction intrudes on Casey and Tib’s nascent relationship, partly because the cowboy is unable to show support when Tib needs it. Confusion and anger follow, sending Casey back out onto the streets, once again lost and alone with his emotional burden.
He hits rock bottom when he takes a paid gig as the slave at a sleazy party run by Pietro (former Rugby League player Ian Roberts, who made waves in 1995 by coming out as gay at the height of his professional sports career). The older man then offers Casey a thankless live-in position as houseboy and party plaything, basically stripping him of every last shred of dignity.
While that plot development makes sense when contextualized against Casey’s lingering guilt, and Boreham is careful to show the cowboy as a consensual participant rather than a victim of abuse, it sours the film. The gray area in which dehumanizing sex work becomes a substitute for lasting connection has been explored with greater insight and compassion in a number of graphic queer films, notably Camille Vidal-Naquet’s Sauvage.
Some audiences may also find Casey’s subsequent reclamation of himself and his steps toward meaningful romance a little too tidy. But it puts Lonesome back on more stable ground and concludes the film on a note of hopeful tenderness, illustrating that shared isolation and loss can yield mutual comfort.