Thomas Bidegain’s Les Cowboys appears to pride itself on demonstrating both sides of a complex racial divide, only for its messaging to wind up flattering the whitest sensibility imaginable. Heretofore comedic actor François Damiens stars as Alain, a hardheaded father and husband in rural France whose 16-year-old daughter, Kelly, disappears at the end of a long day of country-western-themed roleplaying in the autumn of 1994. A lot hinges on the question of how metaphorically Bidegain, Jacques Audiard’s longtime co-writer, wants his viewers to take this family’s obsession with American iconography. The cheeseburgers, horseback rides, snakeskin boots, square dances, and 10-gallon hats feel borderline satirical, but then the camera hangs back in a kind of halting, reverential handheld, as if characters were the Mennonite broncos from Carlos Reygadas’s Silent Light. Speaking of comparisons: Despite the “riff on The Searchers” logline currently making festival-circuit-recap rounds, Bidegain’s directorial debut might be better elevator-pitched as Taken meets Paul Haggis’s Crash, too enamored of its would-be importance to come anywhere remotely near being enjoyed (or enjoying itself) for the meatheaded pulp that it is.
Kelly’s disappearance isn’t the plot’s inciting McGuffin, but the revelation that she has an Arab boyfriend, Ahmed (Mounir Marghoum). Documents are found in the girl’s room suggesting she allowed herself to be insta-radicalized while her parents weren’t looking, and Alain proceeds into vigilantism, disgusted by the lackadaisical efforts of his local police unit. In Noé Debré’s screenplay, character motivation is nowhere near as important as action, handing the film over to Alain’s forward-thrusting, manic Islamophobia without question. (Neither Kelly nor Ahmed hold any narrative sway prior to her disappearance, save for one very long, very idyllic slow dance she shares with her father.)
If it makes for a dull, repetitive, and needlessly shrill experience, it also highlights what will become Les Cowboys’s animating sin: its willingness to interrogate ripped-from-the-headlines topicalities in service of an essentially rote idea. It’s a too-shallow drop from “woman in a fridge” to “girl in a burqa,” and long before Alain has dozed off on the freeway and killed himself in a hideous car accident, you’ll wonder how much further the material can actually go without an off-screen change of heart from the missing daughter.
A painfully misbegotten—even problematic—answer comes to the fore in the film’s second half: Years have passed, the War on Terror has begun, and Kelly’s younger brother, Georges (Finnegan Oldfield, a black hole of actorly charisma), has become an aid worker in Afghanistan, albeit for the sole purpose of tracking down his missing sister. The political implications of NGO work as a means to salvaging a white girl from radical Islam aren’t exactly vetted, while Bidegain’s belabored hat-tips to the western genre—including a scene where Georges and a shady headhunter, inexplicably played by John C. Reilly, pass a peace pipe with Pashtun tribal chieftains—grow ever more unfortunate.
Bidegain’s coda doesn’t see Georges finding Kelly, but instead living out a fantasy as old as the oldest colonial-era serials. He returns home with Ahmed’s widow in tow, a Pakistani woman named Shazana (Ellora Torchia), and all parties involved learn an important lesson about cross-cultural tolerance—not to be confused with anything resembling mutual respect. If Shazana isn’t a total cipher, her purpose in the film’s gimlet-eyed wrap-up (wherein she learns, finally, to put on the cowgirl boots) couldn’t be more transparent if Bidegain wanted it to be. Never content to suffice as a mediocre thriller, Les Cowboys is a wellspring of embarrassment for all parties involved.