Les Cowboys (2015): Thomas Bidegain’s Directing Debut, Western Inspired by John Ford’s Classic The Searchers

Les Cowboys (The Cowboys), the striking directing debut from the famed French screenwriter Thomas Bidegain, world premiered at the 2015 New Directors/New Films and then played at the 2015 Cannes Film Fest (in Directors Fortnight sidebar).

The search for a teenage French girl, who’s gone to the subcontinent to follow her jihadist boyfriend tears up and turns in her family into modern “searchers” in this well-constructed tale, inspired by John Ford’s 1956 classic, The Searchers, starring John Wayne in his best performance.

The cast of this Belgian-French production is international, head by superb French actor Francois Damiens and American John C. Reilly, as war profiteer, who trades people for money.

Bidegain, until now best known for scripts he’s co-written for Jacques Audiard (A Prophet, Rust and Bone), shows that he has a vision all his own.

The tale begins with a long sequence depicting a family arriving at a fair where French country & western enthusiasts celebrate their love of Western. Then it’s suddenly revealed that Kelly (Iliana Zabeth), the  teenage daughter of amateur country singer Alain (Francois Damiens) and Nicole (Agathe Dronne) and the older sister of little “Kid” (Maxim Driesen), has disappeared.

Bidegain and Noe Debre’s literary scenario, set in 1994, is divided into chapters with titles based on the various characters.

Thematically, though, the first half details the father’s obsessive search, disregarding his daughter’s request (via letter) not to look for her.

The narrative’s second part is set eight years later, when the focus shifts to Georges Balland, or Kid (Finnegan Oldfield), who is in Pakistan looking for Aafia, his older sister’s new name, who might be there with her secret jihadist-lover, Ahmed (Mounir Marghoum), holding a fake passport.

In rural Pakistan, the Kid meets Shazana (Ellora Torchia), whose character represents a totally different value system.

From then on, it becomes clear that the director is interested in exploring the wide divide between (Middle) East and West.

Damiens, who excelled in the French comedy hit The Belier Family (co-written by Bidegain), shows his considerable range and dramatic skills here.  While dominating the first reels, Damiens occupies a secondary position in the plot’s last two ones, in which Oldfield is the center.