It is impossible to deny that, in his first attempt at directing a feature film, writer Thomas Bidegain chose some hefty inspiration to live up to. The acclaimed writer of “A Prophet” has been very vocal about his film “Les Cowboys” being inspired by “The Searchers.” A quintessential Western, “The Searchers” is a year-long John Wayne odyssey with a gut-punching ending and one of the more fair depictions of Native Americans. And while this is a massive legacy to live up to, “Les Cowboys” succeeds for the most part.
The film only follows “Searchers” in broad strokes, taking the setting to the present day. In rural France, a father is distraught to find his daughter has run off with her Muslim boyfriend and both are nowhere to be found. Determined to drag her back kicking and screaming, he and his son Kid begin a journey spanning Europe, Africa and the Middle East. Both he and the father—played by Finnegan Oldfield and Francois Damiens, respectively—convince the audience that they are obsessive enough to persevere, pulling this off with racism, desperation and closure.
When Kid takes over, any animosity, Islamophobia and bitterness felt disappears because he just wants to know his sister is alive. The search also feels appropriately exhausting, as hope and patience wane. And, most importantly, “Cowboys” shares “Searcher’s” sense of a never-ending journey and the inability to move on. Much like its inspiration, “Les Cowboys” hangs on the notion that even if they succeed, heroes will never be able to go back to their lives. Since there is no true closure, even winning would feel somewhat hollow. And yet, Bidegain takes a slightly more optimistic look on this, ending on a sad, but fulfilling note.
Unfortunately, the signs that this is a first-time director are apparent. The pacing and structure of the film are awkwardly framed. There are essentially three different films, each with uneven amounts of screen time. This results in a quick first section, a dragging second, and a third that scavenges for what’s left. And while the film tries its best to address the Islamophobia rampant in the wake of 9/11, that part of the discussion gets lost in the shuffle. Regardless, “Les Cowboys” is a very strong tribute and an ambitious first foray into directing for an acclaimed writer.
“Les Cowboys” is screening as part of the New York Film Festival. It premiered on Oct. 1.
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