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.