“Les Cowboys” opens in 1994 on a disorienting note. We are watching a fair in rural France where all the attendees are duded up in western garb and singers are belting out songs like “Tennessee Waltz.” It’s a faux celebration of the frontier spirit put on by a solidly middle-class community, represented primarily by Alain (a powerful François Damiens), the Stetson-wearing family patriarch; his wife, Nicole (Agathe Dronne); and their two children, the preteen Kid (Maxim Driesen) and his 16-year-old sister, Kelly (Iliana Zabeth).
The festivities break up when it’s discovered that Kelly has gone missing. Soon enough it becomes clear that she has run off with her boyfriend and possible jihadi, Ahmed (Mounir Margoum). Although Kelly writes the family that she is fine and they must not look for her, Alain immediately goes into mission mode, attempting desperately to track her down. If this outline sounds familiar, that’s because Thomas Bidegain, the film’s co-writer (with Noé Debré) and first-time director, is attempting an update of John Ford’s celebrated (and overrated) western “The Searchers,” in which John Wayne’s Ethan obsessively tracks down the niece (played by Natalie Wood) kidnapped by Indians. He’s like Ahab on the prairie – just substitute Comanches for Moby-Dick.
Bidegain is also working off Paul Schrader’s “Hardcore,” a redo of “The Searchers,” in which George C. Scott’s fundamentalist patriarch descends into the pornography netherworld to rescue his daughter. With all these antecedents, the film is more ambitious than altogether successful. Alain’s descent into crazed compulsion is never fully filled in. Although he is meant to seem self-immolating, he’s stauncher than all the naysayers, including his wife, who are pleading with him to let it go. (She accuses him of being a kidnapper.) To me he seems more noble than nuts, especially since, unlike Ethan in “The Searchers,” his pursuit is fueled not by racism but by his abiding need to protect his daughter.
Bidegain tries to cast the relationship between Alain and Kid (played as a teenager by Finnegan Oldfield) in archetypal terms: The son, in the 17 years covered by the film, ranging from Belgium to Pakistan, must eventually relinquish the father’s hold on him and find his own way – which also means finding his own way of coming to terms with Kelly’s fate. The setup is more powerful than the payoff, perhaps because Oldfield is not the most captivating of actors but also because the film’s long-form chronology, which leaps without warning across the years, short-circuits the characters’ emotional continuity.
And yet, with all this working against it, “Les Cowboys” strikes a fresh chord. The rise of jihadism has infused this revenge scenario with (all too literally) new blood. Bidegain doesn’t underscore the story’s socially conscious aspects; he doesn’t need to. There’s a scene in which Alain is asked to sympathize with the ghettoized living conditions of an Arab immigrant, a possible informant, and Alain snaps at him. He is only there, he tells him, for his daughter. Bidegain structures the film as an adventure saga, but the smaller story is implicitly encompassed by a larger one. When an accomplice tells Alain that “your daughter is not your daughter anymore,” it’s an appalling admission that speaks not only to every parent’s fears but also to the realization that we live in a world where terror has become commonplace. Grade: B+ (Rated R for a brief violent image and a scene of drug use.)