Cineastes have long revered John Ford’s “The Searchers,” and many have been inspired to emulate it with varying degrees of success. The latest is French screenwriter Thomas Bidegain, whose debut directorial effort, about a father obsessed with tracking down the daughter who was either abducted by, or willingly went off with, a Muslim boyfriend and the son who joins in the search, obviously shares much with the iconic American Western. But “Les Cowboys” is, fortunately, no slavish imitation; while the first half is a close modern approximation of Ford’s tale, in the second it diverges from it markedly, taking a very different, much more humane, approach.
The initial focus of the film is on Alain (Francois Damiens), a businessman who, along with his wife Nicole (Agathe Dronne) and their children Kelly (Iliana Zabeth) and Georges (Maxim Driesen), is a devotee of Western-themed fairs where they all engage in line dancing and he occasionally takes the stage to sing standards like “The Tennessee Waltz.” The family’s fun is shattered during one of those outings in 1995, however, when Kelly suddenly disappears. Kidnapping is suspected, but after Alain learns that the sixteen-year old has been enjoying a relationship with an older boy named Ahmed, it appears that she probably went off with him voluntarily. That’s confirmed when the family receives a letter from her asking them not to look for her.
Alain won’t be deterred by that, of course. He begins a long search that takes him and Georges to many locations in Europe; mention is also made of his fruitless trips to North Africa, Yemen and Syria. His single-minded obsession undermines his marriage, and finally Georges (now played by Finnegan Oldfield, physically convincing as an older version of Driesen)) refuses to join him on yet another trip when Alain announces a new lead.
After the events of 9/11, however, Georges takes up his father’s mission, and the second half of the film finds him an aid worker in Afghanistan, though his real goal is to find Kelly. There he’s approached by an American mercenary (John C. Reilly) who invites him along on a mission to Pakistan, intended to ransom some western workers but also a possible way to locate Ahmed. Georges agrees, and eventually does find Ahmed, although the meeting ends with the young Frenchman in jail, facing execution along with Shazana (Ellora Torchia), a lovely Pakistani woman. His connection with her will take an unpredictable turn, and eventually to Georges’ discovery of what happened to Kelly.
In telling his story, Bidegain includes touches that tie his film to Ford’s—not merely the western trappings of the initial scenes (including Alain’s fondness for a Stetson-style hat), but some horsemanship in the second half, along with a scene that can’t help but recall the old cliché about smoking a peace pipe with Indians—though in this case the action is set in Afghanistan. But while “The Searchers” was essentially a study of racism, “The Cowboys” turns into a tale of overcoming differences and animosities. In the end, this is an irenic version of Ford’s film, embracing a humanistic attitude the filmmaker presumably hopes is reflective of modern France rather than the Wild West.
The two halves of the picture are also distinguished by the very different actors who dominate them. Damiens is a highly physical presence, who plays Alain as a volatile man ready to resort to force when necessary, wearing his emotions on his sleeve. By contrast Oldfield is reticent, almost impassive, exhibiting relatively little of Georges’ inner life; he’s reluctant to threaten anyone, and loses his self-control only under the direst circumstances, and then in defense of others even more than himself. The rest of the cast support the two well, with Dronne bringing nuance to Nicole’s changes in mood, Torchia providing a soothing presence and Reilly restraining his natural comedic tendencies to give the American a casually businesslike air in the rugged outdoor scenes that cinematographer Arnaud Potier seems to revel in after the more muted, often dark images of the film’s first hour.
Bidegain tells his story, it should be noted, in an elliptical fashion, favoring abrupt shifts in time that compel the viewer to read between the lines and fill in the gaps. But while the film’s allusive structure demands a viewer’s concentration, it rewards the effort with a timely message about overcoming the fear of the other and a quietly moving conclusion.