Les Cowboys – Thomas Bidegain

UnknownThomas Bidegain’s directorial debut brings to the screen an idea the successful scriptwriter has mulled over for years and which takes on new meaning after the recent tragic events in Paris.  Les Cowboys is the story of a father’s desperate search for his 16 year-old-daughter after she disappears abroad with her possibly jihadist boyfriend.  Questions were raised over the timing of the film’s release following the Paris attacks. But Bidegain has pointed out Les Cowboys opens in 1994 before ISIS militants or even Al Qaeda were internationally known.  And the film is not concerned with the rise of radical Islam, but the courage and tenacity of one family who refuses to accept their daughter’s rejection of life in the West.  A long time fan of Westerns, Bidgain’s film is a successful re-working of John Ford’s classic The Searchers starring John Wayne. But where Ford’s film follows Wayne as he tracks his niece across the  Wild West in pursuit of her indian captors,  Bidegain’s hero trails his missing daughter across similiarly inhospitable terrain to Pakistan, via Yemen, Belgium and Denmark.

It’s the kind of well-crafted, meticulously detailed film to be expected from Jacques Audiard’s long-time collaborator. Bidegain has an impressive list of scriptwriting hits to his name including Audiard’s Un Prophète, De Rouille et d’Os and Palme d’Or winner Dheepan as well as Bertrand Bonello’s Saint Laurent.  Bidegain’s Les Cowboys is a chilling tale told with admirable clarity. There are no good and bad guys here, just the story of a family’s personal trauma and how they are swept up in events taking place on a much larger scale.
Alain (François Damiens) is enjoying a day with his family at a Country and Western fair in eastern France when he realises his daughter Kelly (Iliana Zabeth) is missing.  After a couple of days spent frantically trying to track her down, she sends a letter to her family asking them to stop looking for her.  Alain refuses to accept her disappearance  and begins a relentless search for his daughter dragging his young son along with him. It’s an epic journey which sees the destruction of his personal and professional life.  Years later it is Kid (Finnegan Oldfield) who continues the search for his sister whose whereabouts still remain a mystery.
Les Cowboys‘ majestic sweep covers 15 years, several countries and swtiches focus from the father’s to the son’s story at about midway. While Alain’s aim is to find Kelly and bring her home, Kid is merely seeking reassurance she has no regrets. But then Kid has lived through the Madrid  and London bombings and the destruction of the Twin Towers and knows what he is up against.
Visually Les Cowboys is all you could want from a film paying hommage to the great Westerns of the 50s and 60s – stetsons, horseback trails, rugged landscapes – there’s even a peace pipe of sorts. The film’s second half suffers from the loss of focus on the ferocious Alain, despite an excellent cameo from American actor John C. Reilly and a brooding, mostly silent performance by Oldfield.  Damiens is all the more impressive for taking a break from his usual comic roles (La Famille Bélier, The Brand New Testament) to turn in a tour de force as the agonised father torn apart by the loss of this beloved daughter.  The ending lacks the dramatic impact of the rest of the film and ties up the loose ends rather too neatly. But this is an impressive first film setting the bar high for those that follow.

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