The problem is that it doesn’t really succeed even as a chilly intellectual exercise, and it most certainly does not succeed as a film.
If you’ve heard anything at all about Les Cowboys, longtime screenwriter Thomas Bidegain’s first film as a director, it’s probably that it was inspired by John Ford’s The Searchers. That’s a catchy logline, but one that does Les Cowboys no favors. There are similarities in plot and character between the two films, but Bidegain is no John Ford and this film is not close to belonging in the same class as one of the greatest Westerns of all time.
Les Cowboys opens in 1994 at a bizarre fair where French people come to play cowboy for a day, firing six-shooters and donning cowboy boots and ten-gallon hats to dance to American country standards. Alain (Francois Damiens) is called to the stage to perform “The Tennessee Waltz,” in which the speaker laments that his “little darling” was stolen from him. Perhaps he should have paid closer attention to the lyrics, because when it’s time for Alain and family to return home at the end of the day, his beloved 16-year-old daughter Kelly (Iliana Zabeth) is nowhere to be found. Alain and his wife Nicole (Agathe Dronne) at first fear foul play, but soon learn that their daughter had a secret life to which they were oblivious and has voluntarily left to marry her Muslim boyfriend, Ahmed.
Alain reacts not as a concerned father but as a combination of jilted lover and white supremacist, seeing his daughter as his possession and the Muslim whom he believes stole her as a threat to everything he holds dear. He’s an angry white man, in other words, who assumes he is entitled to all the privileges granted by his gender and nationality and never stops to consider that valid ways of thinking might exist outside his own skull.
Alain makes it his mission in life to track down his daughter, dragging his younger son, Kid, with him on a journey that eventually lasts 15 years and stretches across several continents. The father doesn’t change much over the course of the film, but the son does, first accepting his father’s cause, then rejecting it, then taking it up once again as an adult (at which point he has a proper name, Georges, and is played by Finnegan Oldfield). Neither father nor son are particularly sympathetic characters, yet the film centers around them, which points up one of its key problems.
The most generous interpretation I can offer of Les Cowboys is that it seeks to deconstruct the tropes of violent masculinity as embodied in The Searchers. The problem is that it doesn’t really succeed even as a chilly intellectual exercise, and it most certainly does not succeed as a film. It’s as if Bidegain took Ford’s classic film, removed everything that makes it connect with audiences (you know, like a comprehensible plot, characters that you can be interested in, and epic scope achieved within a compact structure). Instead, we get a schematic plot in which things happen because that’s what’s required to move the plot forward, central characters who are not particularly interesting, and a sprawling story that still feels small.
Even if you grant the intellectual exercise premise, the director does not have the courage of his convictions—while everything we see about the Moslem (and female) characters in this movie demonstrates that they are far better human beings than the leading French male characters, there’s no payoff to this insight. Instead, the French dudes get to dwell in the land of no consequences no matter where they are or what they do, while their knowledge of Islam is limited to news reports of terrorism. In fact, Islam as a living religion or culture is really not present in this film, just as Kelly isn’t really a character so much as she is a plot device to motivate the actions of the male characters. It’s the old “women in refrigerators” trope employed without a shred of self-awareness or irony on the part of Bidegain.
For all the flaws of this film, it does contain a few good things. One is the appearance of John C. Reilly as a modern-day bounty hunter, a shadowy character who introduces himself to Georges with the words “I trade people for money.” Another is the subtle performance of Ellora Torchia as Shazana, a Pakistani woman who becomes entangled in Georges’ quest through no intention or fault of her own. Finally, the cinematography of Arnaud Potier creates a different look for each of the four sections of the film, from the chilly noir of northern Europe to the dusty landscapes of central Asia. | Sarah Boslaugh