LES COWBOYS, drama, rated R, in English and French with subtitles, The Screen, 2.5 chiles
Media reports of everyday Americans joining Islamic militants in carrying out terrorist attacks give Thomas Bidegain’s Les Cowboys particular significance just now. Some see the film as a modern-day French remake of John Ford’s The Searchers, but the similarities are superficial. Yes, it’s about two men looking for a family member who has suddenly disappeared into another land and culture. But Les Cowboys never quite delves deeply enough into the motivations of these three people — father, son, and daughter — to do what they do. And by adding surprise after surprise within the storyline — and this is a film of surprises, to its credit — it continually strays from its narrative, making you wonder what it’s trying to say.
Despite these flaws, Les Cowboys — co-written by Bidegain and Noé Debré — maintains interest and packs an emotional wallop before the closing credits roll. Its attempt at political and cultural commentary, though, gets somewhat lost as we follow the efforts of middle-aged father Alain (François Damiens) and his son Georges (Finnegan Oldfield) to find Alain’s daughter Kelly (Iliana Zabeth), who has willingly integrated herself into Islamic society. Every new terrorist attack against the U.S. and France makes the duo wonder if Kelly was involved — something they believe goes against her upbringing and the family’s love of American cowboy culture, including two-stepping, singing frontier ballads, and horseback riding.
Modern-day cowboys, even those from France, know that a man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do, even if he alienates everyone he loves, breaks a few rules, and kills someone in a not-so-good-old-fashioned gun duel. When an amiable but shifty American undercover operative (nicely played by John C. Reilly) shows up on a horse and holsters a gun to join in the hunt across the Pakistani prairie for very different reasons, the film almost captures the feel and weight of those classic cowboy movies, especially with Reilly spouting such lines as, “There’s no room for people like us back where we’re from. We take up too much space.”
One of our heroes follows the cowboy code to an unfortunate end. The other learns to bend with it and realizes his long journey was actually a search for himself. Unlike The Searchers, Les Cowboys is really about a man who finds someone to replace the person for whom he was looking.
Les Cowboys is worth a look but still frustratingly off-target — a film that, unlike its main protagonist, is unable to find itself.
France’s answer to John Wayne? François Damiens, second from left