My favorite western of all time is John Ford’s 1956 classic The Searchers in which John Wayne hit a career peak as a racist cowboy who spends years looking for his niece (Natalie Wood) after she is kidnaped by Comanche war party. So I got my nose out of joint when I heard that French screenwriter Thomas Bidegain (A Prophet, Rust and Bone) would be making his directing debut a virtual remake of The Searchers set in the modern era. American directors have done uncredited reboots of it before — Martin Scorsese in Taxi Driver, Paul Schrader in Hardcore and Breaking Bad creator Vince Gilligan, who says his series finale is a direct reference to Ford’s movie.
Yet I balked at the idea of the French taking on a subject so rooted in the myth of American masculinity. And then I saw Les Cowboys and had my eyes opened. Though the script by Bidegain and Noe Debre, both previous collaborators with major filmmaker Jacques Audiard, is deliberately paced, Les Cowboys pulls in with no intention of letting you go. It’s a workout worth taking.
The film begins in 1995 at a cowboy fair, in which French fans dress western-style in a carnival atmosphere. Francois Damiens, in an outstanding performance of coiled intensity, plays Alain Balland, a devoted daddy and wannabe country singer who we see at the fair dancing with his 16-year-old daughter Kelly (Iliana Zabeth). Then, suddenly, she vanishes. Alain suspects she’s been taken by her jihadist boyfriend, Ahmed (Mounir Marghoum). A note from Kelly stating she has left voluntarily and doesn’t want her father to look for her does nothing to dissuade him. Alain rages at the police and Ahmed’s Muslim family.
And so the search begins over many years. In the weeks following 9/11, Kelly’s younger brother George (Finnegan Oldfield), called “The Kid,” joins in the hunt. In Afghanistan, with the help of an American mercenary (a sly, funny John C. Reilly), the Kid learns more about Kelly, now using the name Aafia. Is Kelly’s conversion for real? The Kid begins to think so.
Alain stays adamant, though at a distance as the focus of the film transfers to the Kid. As a result, the pace slows considerably. Yet Damiens makes such an indelible mark that his presence stays with us even when we don’t see him. Like Wayne in The Searchers, Alain doesn’t know whether he wants to rescue this girl or kill her. Can he ever accept that his own flesh-and-blood has joined with a terrorist organization dedicated to destroying the traditions in which he raised her? Without giving away pertinent details, Les Cowboys does not run away from the provocations it excites. The movie hits hard and stays with you. It’s an auspicious debut for Bidegain as a director. As to whether it can stand shoulder to shoulder with The Searchers, that’ll be the day.