LES COWBOYS Review
Director: Thomas Bidegain
We open on a lone, mountainous prairie, and spy a family arrive at a country fair. Line dancing, horse riding, the whole nine yards. Everyone is dressed in their cowboy hats and respective garments. But something seems off. A man gets on stage to sing a song, and as he proceeds to perform the Tennessee Waltz in E major, his thick French accent distorts this vision of the American west. We aren’t in the United States. This is Europe.
Coming off the whooping critical successes of A PROPHET, RUST AND BONE, and DHEEPAN, LES COWBOYS is Thomas Bidegain’s directorial debut. So it goes without saying that Bidegain is arguably among the finest writers of the 21st century. In a brilliant subversion of the Western narrative, LES COWBOYS has virtually deconstructed and rebuilt the beat for beat structure of John Ford’s THE SEARCHERS, and rendered it into an unflinching family drama.
Oui Papa, j’adore le Confederacy
Perhaps its greatest accomplishment is that Bidegain manages to not tarnish the image of Islam in a narrative that originally treated Native Americans as savages. Thanks to segments that consistently showcase just how many good Muslim people exist in a world that is seemingly dwarfed by the paranoia of religious extremism, LES COWBOYS manages to balance its scales. Unfortunately Bidegain doesn’t take this a step further in order to make a clear political statement, but simply uses his characters as pawns to propel the dramatic tension.
Here we have a father, played by François Damiens, who loses his sanity in the years he spends searching for his daughter after she abandons her country-loving family for an Islamic life. In a rabbit hole of questions, Damiens clings to bare threads of evidence that could lead him closer to his daughter. The structure here is heavily reminiscent of Derek Cianfrance’s 2012 crime saga THE PLACE BEYOND THE PINES. The story is excellent, but the fact that Bidegain simply leaves us with a generic “not all Muslim’s lead unhappy lives” message seems a little surface level for a narrative that is mostly about shame and severed familial ties.
“She looks like me but with hair”
However, what is fascinating about the execution here is that while the film is globetrotting, Damiens and his son (played by Finnegan Oldfield) find themselves somewhat at peace with the enormity of their surroundings. Similar to films that deal with PTSD, Bidegain has crafted a portrait of two men whose mission transforms from rescuing family to salvaging their sanity. The narrative undeniably succeeds on this front, but since most of the film is relegated to travelling from A to B, it feels like an additional layer of conflict is missing to truly cement the severity of what we see on screen.
There’s some sublime imagery here, and Bidegain does a spectacular job at maintaining control in his environment. But what the film really begins to suffer from is just how convenient it all feels. The family’s love for country music and wearing cowboy attire feels completely arbitrary outside of building a stronger disconnect with the Islamic narrative, and a unique bond is formed between two characters in the third act that feels wildly uncharacteristic of both individuals.
They really missed the opportunity to drive a Mustang
That isn’t to say that Bidegain has written a bad film. On the contrary; LES COWBOYS boasts some spectacular visual storytelling and completely understands how a look can communicate more than a thousand words. Most notably, the film’s final important scene is an absolute firecracker and pulls on every heartstring. But the entire experience is almost too try-hard in its attempt to be a western subversion that it begins to wear out its welcome.
Bidegain plays his audience like a fiddle, and takes us from one corner of devastation to the next. On one hand, it’s fantastic that his trademark cynicism is ever-present in his directorial debut, but the fact that the film doesn’t encourage a single bout of optimism really keeps the drabness from sinking in any deeper. In no way is LES COWBOYS ever a critical misfire. Instead, it feels like it’s always a half-deviation off from being absolutely marvelous.