Cotter (Don Murray) is an alcoholic Native American who works as a rodeo clown. One day, when he’s too drunk to do his job, a bull rider is killed as a result. All of the other bull riders track Cotter down in his trailer and tell him that his days of being a clown are over. They tell him that if they ever see him anywhere near another rodeo, they’ll kill him. It’s a dramatic scene that would probably be more powerful if Cotter wasn’t wearing a clown make-up while rolling around on the floor in a drunken stupor.
With nowhere else to go, Cotter returns to his hometown and tries to surprise his old friend Roy (Rip Torn) by jumping through Roy’s front door while wearing his clown make-up. However, when Cotter jumps into the living room, the only person he meets is Roy’s half-naked wife, Leah (Carol Lynley) and she promptly fire two barrels worth of buckshot at him. Showing the reflexes that would have saved that bull rider’s life if only Cotter had been sober, he manages to duck out of the way.
When Roy comes home, he’s at first excited to see his old friend. He even invites Cotter to stay with them. Leah slowly warms up to Cotter. However, the other townsfolk are suspicious of Cotter because of his heritage and his reputation for being a hard drinker. When a local rancher turns up dead, almost everyone immediately assumes that Cotter must be responsible. Not even Roy is willing to stand up for his friend.
Made for a low-budget, Cotter is a well-intentioned film that doesn’t work. A large part of the problem is that, while Don Murray and Rip Torn were both good actors, they both overact in Cotter. For some reason, both of them yell the majority of their lines. Torn was a good bellower but Don Murray, who was usually a far more low-key actor, seems uncomfortable in his role. While it is true that Don Murray first found stardom playing a headstrong cowboy in Bus Stop, it’s also that, from the 60s onward, Murray was always best cast as men of authority and it’s hard to buy him as an irresponsible character like Cotter. Maybe the film would have worked better if Torn and Murray had switched roles. Carol Lynley seems more comfortable with her role than either one of the two male leads, though she doesn’t get to do much beyond suffer at the hands of Roy and eventually fall in love with Cotter. Also giving a good performance is Sherry Jackson, cast as a sympathetic barmaid, though she’s also not given much to do beyond reacting to Cotter and Roy.
Cotter doesn’t have a bad message and it at least acknowledges that Cotter’s alcoholism is largely his way of dealing with the prejudice that he’s suffered his entire life, though Cotter’s monologue on the subject would have probably been more effective if it had been delivered by an actual Native American actor instead of the very white Don Murray. Unfortunately, good intentions aside, Cotter just never really comes together as a movie.