Even film fans who have never seen “The Searchers” know its quest — girls kidnapped by Indians on the Old West, a brutal-years-long pursuit of them and their captors by their uncle an the adopted nephew who draws into his obsession.
“Les Cowboys” is a modern French re-setting of that tale, borrowing its racial parable, its epic, tragic “hero’s quest” for a story of a French farm-country teen who runs off with her Muslim boyfriend, lost to a world utterly alien to her kin.
Her father Alain (François Damiens) never saw it coming. He’d bring the whole family along to their “Country Music Festival” in the foothills of the French Alps — every line-dancing, boot-scooting son and daughter of Gaul in hats, bandanas, blue jeans and bolo ties, driving Ford Mustangs, diving into Western lore and crafts and singing (in thick accents) “The Tennessee Waltz.”
Daughter Kelly (Iliana Zabeth)? She picked this 1994 fair as the spot for her to run off with Ahmed.
Ahmed? A friend from school? Who is he? What’s going on? A notebook filled with practice Arabic and extremist tracts turns up in her room, a letter from Charleville about “the life I’ve chosen” tells the tale.
“Maybe we should trust her,” his wife counsels (in French, with English subtitles). The girl is 16, and he’s not having it. He shares the views of many working class Frenchmen he meets — “You know how these savages treat women!”
Alain quickly tracks down the kid’s parents and is enraged at their lack of concern. Alain turns to the cops who give him the “wait three days” and “Let’s not get all steamed up.”
That is exactly what Alain becomes, increasingly furious that his 16 year-old has run off with some “raghead,” and that no one is taking this disaster seriously.
He abandons his business and tracks any lead — the letter from Charleville, a child in a red bandana in a Gypsy camp in Sedan, a port city document forger, an Islamic terror-funding mullah in Antwerp — “Your daughter is not your daughter any more!” — by sea to Yemen, overland to Turkey.
And like any good Old West son, The Kid follows.
Days turn into months and years, but Alain won’t give up — “I’ll come home when I have my daughter!” How far will he, they, take it?
Director and co-writer Thomas Bidegain (he scripted “A Prophet”) gives us a tail of futility, of “saving” someone who does not want to be saved and the racism built into Alain’s fanatical pursuit.
As with “A Prophet,” Bidegain toys with the changing nature of France and its uneasy relationship with the Islamic world that its former colonies and immigration policies have brought into the country, if not assimilated. “Les Cowboys” (as it was titled in much of the world) shows us a subculture that has absorbed one alien culture (America’s Old West) and yet cannot relate to another, the strangely-dressed people of different faith, values and color who have settled in with them.
“The Searchers” was, in American terms, John Ford’s “Brown vs. Board of Education” Western, a film that metaphorically wrestled with America’s 1950s Civil Rights Movement in the form of a cowboys and Indians tale.
The period piece setting allows the film to chart a Western world that moved from racist co-existence along shared issues (oil, foiling left wing revolutions) to vengeful rage by 9/11 and attacks in Madrid, London and elsewhere. Alain’s generation won’t be able to make this right, even if he gets his daughter back. The Kid’s?
“Cowboys” (as it titled on Netflix) meanders and staggers somewhat in its final acts, where the son Georges takes over the hunt. John C. Reilly plays a sage, cynical and world-weary “Americain” who meets Georges in Pakistan, the post-9/11 focus of any search for “radicalized” Muslims of East or West.
The “trader” (as he describes himself) sees a kindred spirit and shared mission in The Kid, and declares “There’s no room for us back home. We take up too much space.”
It is up to Georges to meet that destiny or transcend it.
The marvel of Bidegain’s film (Noé Debre co-wrote it) is that it lets us hope for that, even as it plays into Western contempt, Western fears and Western rage about a culture we’ve been slow to understand.
MPAA Rating:R for a brief violent image and a scene of drug use
Credits:Directed by Thomas Bidegain, script by Thomas Bidegain and Noé Debré. A Cohen Media Group release.
Running time: 1:44