Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Review: "Les Cowboys"

At the finale of “The Searchers,” perhaps the most seminal Western film ever made, Ethan Edwards (John Wayne) finally catches up with the niece who was kidnapped years earlier by Comanches. A violent and virulently racist man, Ethan has vowed to kill her himself rather than let a white girl continue to live as an Indian. But then he embraces the niece and brings her back into the arms of their family. Love wins over hate.

“The Cowboys” is part ode to John Ford’s masterpiece, and part repudiation of it. Here, love does not always win, and often hate and anger define us, or at least our actions.

It’s a modern French Western -- and who knew there was such a thing? -- whose novelty is more praiseworthy than its execution. Thomas Bidegain is a noted screenwriter -- “A Prophet, “Rust and Bone” -- making his directorial debut with this movie, which he co-wrote with Noé Debré.

It consciously parallels the narrative of “The Searchers,” with a bitter authority figure who gives up everything in pursuit of a female relative taken by men he regards as alien and savage. In tow is a younger man, whose attitudes are less severe, but he ends up making the quest his own.

Initially set in 1994, the story encompasses about a decade and a half. François Damiens plays Alain Balland, a businessman who sidelines as a crooner at cowboy festivals and such, sporting a black 10-gallon hat and a swagger. His wife (Agathe Dronne) and kids enthusiastically join in the fun. But then his 16-year-old daughter, Kelly (Iliana Zabeth), disappears out of the blue.

The cops are unhelpful, the bureaucrats irritating, the leads quickly hit dead ends. Alain’s only clue is a curt letter from Kelly telling them she’s found a new life and not to seek her out. He is not the sort of man to lay aside what he sees as his duty, so he keeps looking.

It appears Kelly ran off with a boyfriend, Ahmed, a Muslim immigrant, which mortifies Alain. He angrily denounces the boy’s parents as “ragheads,” though they seem decent folk. Alain gets close a couple of times, but then the trail dries up.

Flash forward a few years. Alain is thicker, grayer, but no less determined. His son, Georges (Finnegan Oldfield), is now a teen and his resentful companion in the hunt. They go to Belgium, meet with forgers, pay off informants. Funds and help are scarce -- Alain has long ago abandoned his career and marriage -- so they resort to stealing gas to continue.

The journey goes on and on, post-9/11, into the Middle East -- troubled places where Islamic radicalism hold sway. John C. Reilly shows up as an American agent of dubious intent, offering help while carrying out his own shadowy pursuits.

Damiens is a haunting presence, a man who will do anything in pursuit of what he deems right, even if he commits much wrong along the way. Oldfield grows before our eyes from a timid youngster to a hardened man who unwittingly takes up his father’s mantle, and methods.

The story takes too long getting where it wants to, then seems in a terrible hurry to wrap things up in the final act. Momentous life-changing events are given short shrift with too little screen time for the emotional impact to land. A late-arriving character, a Pakistani woman named Shazhana (Ellora Torchia), is introduced more as an idea than a believable person.

It’s an interesting of not entirely successful film. There’s no shame in imitating a classic and falling short, as “Les Cowboys” does.


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