Les Cowboys, Thomas Bidegain’s restless and emotionally bruising directorial debut, opens amid a flurry of red bandannas and blue denim, worn by men and women who have gathered to wave Stars and Stripes and to sing and dance to their favorite folk tunes. The sights and sounds of classic Americana are so richly immersive that it’s not until after a man opens his mouth, launching into a lovely, lightly French-accented rendition of Tennessee Waltz, that you begin to grasp where these events are (or aren’t) taking place.
It’s fall 1994 in eastern France, at a festival where country-western enthusiasts have gathered to celebrate their shared passion. The giddy feeling of dislocation that this realization produces in the viewer — one aptly summed up by the movie’s eccentrically bilingual title — will soon be eclipsed by an altogether darker sense of cross-cultural confusion. Alain Balland (Francois Damiens), a devoted family man and prominent local figure, shares a dance with his 16-year-old daughter, Kelly (Iliana Zabeth), not realizing from the sad, resigned look on her face that this dance will be their last.
Within hours Kelly has vanished without a trace: In a series of letters to her family, she writes that she has taken on a new life with her boyfriend Ahmed, a Muslim, and tells them not to look for her. But when the police do nothing, Alain, whose self-styled cowboy identity turns out to run deeper than a mere taste for black hats and boots, vows to bring his daughter home. And so, with a righteous fury that frequently spills over onto his wife (Agathe Dronne) and their teenage son, he spends his days, months and years traversing Europe and the Middle East, tracking elusive leads and distant rumors, negotiating with shadowy figures, and casting a dim, fragmentary light on a little-known pocket of continental Arab life in the years leading to 9/11.
The dramatic similarities between Les Cowboys and The Searchers, John Ford’s endlessly influential 1956 masterpiece, are no more accidental than Bidegain’s self-conscious yet utterly intuitive embrace of the American western tradition. This is not the first time that this French screenwriter, best known for his prize-winning collaborations with his countryman Jacques Audiard (A Prophet, Rust and Bone, Dheepan), has filtered the sociopolitical anxieties of modern Europe through the pulpy prism of genre. With Les Cowboys, he has taken the central narrative thrust of The Searchers — a man’s relentless, near-maniacal pursuit of a lost girl, driven in part by the queasy racial prejudice and sexual paranoia of the era — and recast it against a new pre- and post-millennial frontier of global anxiety.
Although it’s mostly set long before the rise of the Islamic State group, a fact that at times gives it an almost nostalgic air, Les Cowboys unsurprisingly plays with heightened urgency at a moment when many parents’ worst nightmares have come to pass.
Cast: Francois Damiens, Finnegan Oldfield, Agathe Dronne, Ellora Torchia, John C. Reilly.
Director: Thomas Bidegain.
Screenwriters: Thomas Bidegain, Noe Debre.
A Cohen Media Group release. Running time: 105 minutes. In English, French and Urdu with English subtitles. In Miami-Dade: Cosford Cinema; in Broward: Cinema Paradiso Fort Lauderdale.