A little bit of everything can easily turn into a whole lot of nothing. Thomas Bidegain’s directorial debut Les Cowboys hovers somewhere in between genres, never settling on whether it wants to be a western, a melodrama, a detective story or, judging by its abrupt exotic excursion to Afghanistan, the latest installment in The Adventures of Tintin: Tintin and the Jihadist. We start off straightforwardly enough; a French family of country music aficionados donning Stetsons attends a hoedown in their tightly knit community, a conveniently placed sign informing us that it’s the 1994 edition of the annual get-together. After father Alain (François Damiens) gets roped into singing a romantic song on stage in a thick French accent, an abundance of lens flares kissing the camera, he takes his doting daughter Kelly for a dance. But when she goes missing later that same day, the picture of perfect, sensitive fatherhood comes crumbling down. While ransacking her room, Alain discovers she ran away willingly with her Islamic boyfriend and goes on a rampant search, unraveling completely as the trail goes cold (his rough ways a far cry from Liam Neeson’s methodical retired CIA-agent, at one point cussing out and manhandling a young girl wearing his daughter’s red neckerchief).
We fast forward in time to discover Alain – newly divorced and flat broke – dragging his nearly adult son around to chase shady leads on Kelly’s whereabouts. Consumed by the hunt for what’s already more memory than actual person, our main character eventually gets the boot. A stylishly shot car crash on an abandoned highway disposes of our antihero, thus clearing the path for a more virtuous protagonist to take over: his own kid, nicknamed, for Western’s sake, ‘Kid’ (Finnegan Oldfield). While the accident divides the story neatly in half, twist and turns are strewn throughout the film with increasing regularity. Unlike Bidegain’s collaborations with Jacques Audiard (Rust and Bone, A Prophet), Les Cowboys feels heavily constructed, the screenwriter’s hand palpably reaching for the most surprising outcome at every turn. Things become more bewildering in the film’s second half as our attention is redirected from Alain to Kid. Luckily it also offers us a delightful apparition amidst the dunes of the Arabian desert in the form of John C. Reilly who brings life to ‘the American,’ a comforting yet wholly untrustworthy father figure to Kid.
Multiple jumps through time allow us to bear witness to the most exciting parts of Kid’s journey (who, just like his father before him, gets caught up in the pursuit of his sister to an alarming degree), but it’s a disorienting experience when some of the relational progressions don’t feel as natural or genuine as they should thanks to the rapidly paced plot taking precedence over character depth. This is best exemplified in the relationship between Kid and Shazhana, the wife of a jihadist Kid clumsily shoots (during a tame action sequence which could have used some of the western shootout tropes suggested by the title) and consequently saves from Afghani prison by bringing her home to France with him. From here on out, she will function as a less than subtle symbol of the expanding chasm of distrust between the western world and the Islamic ‘other’. Citing Taxi Driver and Hardcore as direct influences, Bidegain decides to employ Islamic extremists in the role of the Indians in his update of John Ford’s The Searchers, a troublesome choice to begin with.
While the film aims to profile itself as a reflection on post-9/11 society (dating the sequences through media reports on terrorist attacks in New York, Madrid and London), it ends up placing that burden entirely upon the shoulders of a single character: Shazhana. When taken along to one of the French country shindigs, the woman in hijab rides horseback along the banks of a river. It is the central image of the film, commanding more attention than any of the other gorgeous nature shots (in which Bidegain places the tiny silhouettes of his characters against the backdrop of otherwise desolate, majestic landscapes): east and west reconciled. Upon dismounting, Shazhana’s scarf is yanked off, her religion disrespected. The previously gentle cowboy community functions as a stand-in for an increasingly intolerant humanity as the scene devolves into a round of fisticuffs between Kid’s family and their once beloved group of friends. It becomes all the more confounding then that, in the end, Shazhana’s fate is one of mere assimilation as she trades in her hijab for a pair of jeans in becoming part of a family of make-believe cowboys. As for the other Muslims in the film, the shadow of extremism looms large. In mixing genres, Les Cowboys adopts an element of the good old westerns that it could have done without: the often problematic, cartoonish depiction of other cultures.