Screenwriter Thomas Bidegain’s directorial debut opens in rural France at an American-style hoedown that Alain (comedic actor François Damiens, playing against type) frequents with his family. That same day, amid cowboy hats, muddy boots, and a twangy French rendition of “Tennessee Waltz,” Alain’s daughter Kelly disappears. Along with his son, Alain goes to great lengths to look for the missing teen, who may have run off with a young jihadist.
Bidegain plays off the tropes and iconography of the American West and brings Ford’s The Searchers to 21st-century Western Europe, where skirmishes with Indians are replaced by the War on Terror. In the most riveting part of the film, the son (at this point played by Finnegan Oldfield) continues the search for his sister abroad, in the lawless borderlands of Rajasthan. There he’s aided by an American smuggler (a rugged but slick John C. Reilly) who may have an agenda of his own.
Bidegain elevates the film to an epic level by spreading the time frame across two generations. Around the main narrative he gradually attempts to build some weighty questions of contemporary geopolitics. Those questions go unarticulated, however, and much like the film’s characters, we are left with just a search. While Bidegain’s dialogue is sharp and the time-skipping construction sly, one wishes he would have found what he was looking for in Les Cowboys.