NYFF 2015: Les Cowboys
Thomas Bidegain, the screenwriter of well-renowned French films A Prophet, Rust and Bone and this year’s Palme D’Or winner Dheepan, makes his directorial debut with Les Cowboys, which might be the first “French western” I’ve heard of. In what might be a cheeky acknowledgment of his appropriation of the Western, Bidegain opens his film at a country-western festival in France. Alain (Francois Damiens) and his family attend, with Alain having a ball as he sings “Tennessee Waltz” for the crowd and dances with his 16-year-old daughter Kelly (Iliana Zabeth). But when it’s time to leave Kelly is nowhere to be found, and after several days of searching a letter written by Kelly comes in the mail saying she’s run off with her Muslim boyfriend Ahmed. Kelly tells her family not to look for her, but Alain never stops searching, taking his son Kid (Finnegan Oldfield) with him throughout Europe as he spends years trying to track down Kelly.
It’s surprising that Bidegain’s screenplay turns out to be the weakest link in Les Cowboys given his writing background. While he’s undeniably inspired by Hollywood classics like The Searchers, it’s like he’s confused a basic and lacking approach with a classical one. Alain is a one-note character, more or less repeating himself throughout (find a lead, aggressively interrogate people about his daughter, freak out, get another lead, wash rinse repeat). Damiens does a fine job as Alain, but his intimidating presence vanishes as the monotony of his character sinks in. And then Bidegain, possibly aware of his own story going nowhere, suddenly changes things up by switching the focus to Kid in the second half as he heads off alone to Afghanistan. It would be a nice change of pace and setting if Oldfield didn’t have the charisma of a wooden block, mostly keeping his face expressionless and his mouth shut while travelling with an American he encounters on his trip (John C. Reilly in a wasted cameo). At least the scenery looks quite nice, thanks to cinematographer Arnaud Portier.
But if Bidegain wants viewers to join in on his film’s long, plodding journey, he has to make his characters worth following. Alain and Kid are too underdeveloped and stale to bother caring about, and even though Les Cowboys shouldn’t really be about the mystery surrounding Kelly, her whereabouts become the most involving element of the film. Putting aside Bidegain’s other problems—like his awkward attempt to shoehorn 9/11 into the narrative—Les Cowboys never gets out of the gate because, as a character-based drama, it fails to provide a single character worth investing in.