John Ford's 1956 western The Searchers is one of the richest American films, a complex, multi-level story about war, history, family and race that said as much about mid-twentieth century race relations as it did about post-Civil War America. It has inspired films as otherwise unrelated as Taxi Driver and Close Encounters of the Third Kind.
Thomas Bidegain's Les Cowboys is the latest film to draw from Ford's well and the gap between both films — in culture, in history and in time — makes it an ambitious, if flawed, directorial debut. The film begins in 1994 in a small French town where the residents wear cowboy hats and boots, listen to American country music and hold the occasional line dance.
It's at the latter event that Alain Balland (François Damiens) notices that his teenaged daughter, Kelly, is missing. After learning that Kelly has run off with her Muslim boyfriend, Balland and his son Kid (Finnegan Oldfield) begin a long quest through many countries looking for the girl.
As in Ford's film, there are many digressions and obstacles to the search. Like Jeffrey Hunter’s character in The Searchers, Kid ends up with a surrogate wife on his hands, while John C. Reilly turns up as a mercenary with questionable motives. Years pass and prejudices are confronted, if not always overcome. Plot points and compositions allude to the earlier film, sometimes with a heavy hand but occasionally inspired.
There are holes in the narrative, perhaps stemming from his reliance on Ford, but Bidegain manages to overcome most of them. The many echoes of The Searchers aren't completely coherent, as Les Cowboys lacks the earlier film’s wider narrative structure. But those familiar with its source of inspiration will find Bidegain's film a thoughtful and largely rewarding experience.