“Les Cowboys” may not be a classic like “The Searchers,” but it is a solid debut from a talented cinematic author.
Thomas Bidegain has built a steady career in the last half decade as the narrative collaborator of Jacques Audiard, the celebrated French director behind “A Prophet,” “Rust and Bone,” and last year’s Palme d’Or winner “Dheepan.” While much of the success from these films can be attributed to Audiard’s distinctive and powerful dramatic skills as a director, Bidegain’s subtle hand of crafting palpable drama from the more simple reaches of European society is a true gift. While his written skills need no further proof, his directorial debut “Les Cowboys” provides a strong case for his talents as a director as well.
“Les Cowboys” begins in a small, eastern French subculture that has a fond affection for the cowboys and the American West: their music, their clothing, etc. Alain (François Damiens) is popular amongst the sect and entertains his friends with endearing renditions of country western classics. After a tender delivery of “Tennessee Waltz” at a cowboy festival, he and his family discover their daughter has disappeared, eloping with her Muslim boyfriend to live under Islam. His quest to find her becomes an exhausting intercontinental search that only stiffens his already tough personality and soon, his son (Finnegan Oldfield) becomes deeply involved in continuing the search following the events of 9/11.
The primary influence of director Thomas Bidegain’s debut is John Ford’s seminal western “The Searchers.” Or perhaps, influence is too light of a word, as “The Searchers” provides a complete narrative blueprint for “Les Cowboys.” It’s a much slower burn than the American classic, which is a great strength of the film, but also one of its faults. The simmering tension enhances the thematic tirelessness and exhaustiveness. It also allows a story so steeped in elements of its cowboy cinema influences, to develop in a very naturalistic sense. The drama doesn’t feel manufactured, it feels authentic. On the other end, however, the film can feel very monotonous. While the “action” does ramp up in the latter half, it can frequently feel awkward.
Unlike many films that explore the tumultuous post-9/11 situation in the Middle East as loud and chaotic, “Les Cowboys” presents it, appropriately, like the American West; it’s quiet, ordered and rather elegant (the rich cinematography is a highlight), but the line of who’s good and bad, right and wrong, is rather unclear. That is the greatest strength of “Les Cowboys” and much of Bidegain’s work – he moves with instinct as opposed to a calculated cinematic narrative. “Les Cowboys” may not be a classic like “The Searchers,” but it is a solid debut from a talented cinematic author.
“Les Cowboys” is rated R for a brief violent image and a scene of drug use. 104 minutes. Now playing at Laemmle’s Royal Theater in Santa Monica.