(Thomas Bidegain, France/Belgium, 2015) 104 minutes


Director: Thomas Bidegain
Producer: Alain Attal
Screenplay: Thomas Bidegain, Noé Debré
Cinematography: Arnaud Potier
Editor: Géraldine Mangenot
Music: Raphael Haroche
François (Alain)
Finnegan Oldfield (kid)
Agathe Dronne (Nicole)
Ellora Torchia (Shahzana)
Antoine Chappey (Charles)
Maxim Driesen (kid, aged 13)

Reviews and notes

2015 Cannes (Directors Fortnight), Toronto, Athens, New York, London
2016 Hong Kong, San Francisco, Seattle

Best known as co-writer of Jacques Audiard's A Prophet and Rust and Bone, Thomas Bidegain makes a striking directing debut with this timely twist on a classic Hollywood theme. A French family obsessed with country and western is thrown into crisis when teenage daughter Kelly suddenly disappears. Stetson-toting father Alain (François Damiens) heads off in pursuit, later accompanied by his son 'Kid'. As time passes and we move into the uncertainties of the 21st-century, this twisty, provocative drama-thriller offers a modern variant on John Fords The Searchers, with Alain in the John Wayne role as a man forced to confront his own prejudices - not about Native Americans, but about Islam and its transformation of the contemporary world. With terrific performances from Damiens, up-and-comer Finnegan Oldfield, and John C Reilly, Les Cowboys combines real-world commentary and classic French cinephilia to potent effect.
- Jonathan Romney, London Film Festival 2015.

Reaching across 15 years and multiple countries, Les Cowboys repurposes the narrative codes of the classic western to explore the complexities of a disrupted world.

The story opens in 1994 at a country-and-western fair in rural France, where cowboy-hatted families have gathered to enjoy line dancing and a rodeo. The scene, photographed in lovely, woozy close-ups by Arnaud Potier, is disorienting and metaphoric, a microcosm of one culture mushrooming in the heart of another. And when Alain (François Damiens), a local businessman, is cajoled into singing the Patti Page classic Tennessee Waltz, it's no surprise when the lyrics turn out to have been a foreshadowing. He's about to lose his "little darling".

That loss - of his 16-year-old daughter, Kelly (Iliana Zabeth), who disappears during the festivities - is the match that ignites the film's fuse, the event that will rend a family and rip another young woman from her homeland. But we know none of that yet as Alain, believing his daughter kidnapped, rails at the police and the parents of Kelly's newly discovered Muslim boyfriend, who has also disappeared. A note from Kelly saying that she has chosen a different life only pushes Alain's search into overdrive; and Mr. Damiens, in a performance as fierce as it is precise, winds his character into a knot of fury and despair.

Directing for the first time, the prolific screenwriter Thomas Bidegain creates an oblique yet mesmerizing drama, his economical script (written with Noe Debre) allowing the movie's observant camera and sprawling locations to tell their own story. Visual bread crumbs - like a red neckerchief and silently watchful shots of Kid, Kelly's little brother - lead us like clues to a mystery stretching from a document forger in Antwerp to Yemen and beyond. And as time passes and the twin towers of the World Trade Center fall, Alain's bitter fixation transfers to Kid, now known as Georges (Finnegan Oldfield) and doing medical relief work in Pakistan.

Unfolding with a reticence that's occasionally confusing, Les Cowboys presents a suggestive, almost abstract take on terror and the generational toxicity of bigotry. John C. Reilly adds punch to the movie's middle section as a shady trader of money for hostages; and Agathe Dronne, in a beautifully generous performance that's somewhat muffled by the testosterone-heavy plot, is quietly heartbreaking as Kelly's mother.

Yet even as the story slides from hatred and obsession to compassion and a kind of peace, it's clear that Mr. Bidegain isn't schooling us in social justice. Rather, in his unfussy, irresolute way, he's merely reminding us that fear of the other didn't start with those tumbling towers. Like the heroes of John Ford's 1956 masterwork, The Searchers (one of the director's inspirations), Georges and his father are seeking a woman taken by a man of another race. The problem is that the woman they find might no longer be the one they lost.
- Jeannette Catsoulis, New York Times, 23 June 2016.

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