It’s hard to blame Thomas Bidegain for thinking that a contemporary remake of “The Searchers” might be a good idea. After all, the same virulent otherness that pumped through John Ford’s classic Western is at the heart of the Islamophobia that plagues modern Europe, and has percolated beneath the surface of its cinema since at least “The Battle of Algiers.” The recent attacks in Paris and Belgium, neither of which occurred until long after “Les Cowboys” was in the can, only serve to add a greater sense of urgency to Bidegain’s film, a vigilante tale whose wayward white hero is stymied by the same cultural divide that terrorists sacrifice their lives in order to deepen and expand.
But Bidegain’s update, however clever and opportunistic it might be, inevitably runs into a problem that didn’t affect the original: It’s not directed by John Ford.
Which isn’t to say that Bidegain is some schmuck off the streets — this may be the Frenchman’s first time behind the camera, but the last few years have seen him emerge as one of his country’s most reliable and accomplished screenwriters. “Dheepan,” the most recent of his three collaborations with Jacques Audiard, even won the Palme d’Or. And while “Les Cowboys” flaunts its debt to “The Searchers” in all of the strangest ways, the film moves with an elliptical swagger that makes it feel like a clear outgrowth of Bidegain’s previous work.
The story, as is in the scripts he wrote for Audiard, is set into motion with the casualness of everyday horror: Alain (François Damiens) takes his wife and kids to a bizarro cowboy fair on a grey afternoon in 1994, donning a Stetson and dancing the “Tennessee Waltz” with his teenage daughter, Kelly (Iliana Zabeth). The whole thing is more than a little strange — there’s a ritualistic, borderline fundamentalist zeal to the event, like Alain forced the whole thing upon his family. Needless to say, when people start to notice that Kelly has disappeared, Alain is the only one who believes that she must have been abducted.
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Unlike her equivalent character in “The Searchers,” she wasn’t.
Kelly, it turns out, has left of her own free will, running away with her Muslim boyfriend, Ahmed. As distressing as that news is to her family, Alain seems most perturbed by the fact that he didn’t know his baby girl was dating outside of her race and religion. A beefy man with a glint in his eye that suggests he gets most of his news from talk radio (Damiens looks like Matthias Schoenaerts’ frazzled older brother, his character defined by the actor’s sunken features), Alain completely fails to understand why someone might prefer another way of life, and why his daughter felt like she had to leave him out of the loop. He seems less of a hurt father than he does a cuckold, less afraid of miscegenation so much as he is confounded by the thought that it might have happened to him. By the time he’s recommitted his life to finding the girl, the most sympathetic detail about him is an errant line of dialogue about some Islamist propaganda found in Kelly’s room.
He searches from Antwerp to Syria, a walking argument against the possibility of pluralism — one look at his twisted stare and it’s easy to understand how someone might feel that they couldn’t be both French and Muslim. But Bidegain isn’t much interested in the various Muslims that Alain encounters and shakes down, preferring instead to focus his attention on a static vigilante hero whose broad fetish for the American West has metastasized into bigotry (fatherly frustrations aside, he drops the word “raghead” with the automatic ease of a gunslinger chewing straw). Like most racists, he’s really fucking boring. Unlike “The Searchers,” “Les Cowboys” fails to make hay of the interstitial moments between its outbursts of violence, and Bidegain never finds a compelling way to convey the inertia of Alain’s search.
And then 9/11 happens and the film shifts gears, abandoning Alain in favor of his teenage son, George (“Bang Gang” star Finnegan Oldfield). A softer, more sensitive type who has a flair for helping people, the kid continues his father’s mission by taking a job with an NGO in Pakistan. Morally unformed where his father was rigidly petrified, George is somehow even less interesting to watch than Alain. By the time he joins a human trafficker (John C. Reilly!?) for a rescue mission on horseback, “Les Cowboys” has become as uncomfortable with its influences as France has with its immigrants (it doesn’t help that Bidegain exhibits little flair for Western visuals, and his film’s pivotal standoff is fatally bungled).
Ultimately, “Les Cowboys” fails to capitalize on the most interesting thing that it shares with “The Searchers”: A simmering disgust for male behavior. While otherness and bigotry will always continue to assume new forms, masculinity is a constant cancer, and the root cause of both films’ most heinous violence. Bidegain has little to say about how hatred is passed down between generations, and the choice to make Ahmed such an asshole diminishes any hope of knotted moral equivalency between the Muslim and non-Muslim characters, but — so casually that it almost feels inadvertent — his story sees every man of a certain age as a person from whom a woman might need to escape.
So we’re left with the movie’s one truly stirring moment, in which Alain, his wife and Ahmed’s parents receive a parcel containing photos of their newborn grandchild. The circumstances may be difficult, but both of the mothers are nevertheless moved to tears by the news. Alain can only grimace, incapable of imagining how he could ever think of the baby as his kin. You can almost hear John Wayne’s voice rattling around behind his eyes: “That’ll be the day.”
“Les Cowboys” opens in theaters on Friday, June 24.