It takes a lot of confidence for a director to pay homage to John Ford’s “The Searchers” (1956), and in the case of Thomas Bidegain’s “Les Cowboys” it is not altogether unwarranted. Applying Ford’s epic of culture clash and the fear of miscegenation to Europe’s ongoing angst about immigration, terrorism, and the spread of jihadism, Bidegain’s artful, melancholy film does not suffer by comparison with Ford’s masterpiece until the end, when it searches for too much, or not enough.
Those who find the notion of European cowboys farfetched should take a look at the C&W singers in Felix van Groeningen’s “Broken Circle Breakdown” (2013). Like them, Bidegain’s protagonist, Alain (François Damiens), knows his way around a ballad. At the beginning of the film he croons “The Tennessee Waltz” at a rustic French hoedown, and finds life imitating the lyrics of the song as his true love is stolen away. His adored teenaged daughter, Kelly (Iliana Zabeth), has left with her Arab boyfriend; and Alain sets off to find her, bringing along his 13-year-old son, Kid (Maxim Driesen), in the Jeffrey Hunter role.
Alain might not have the very particular set of skills of Liam Neeson’s character in “Taken” (2008), but he does have the perseverance of John Wayne’s Ethan Edwards. Time passes elliptically, imperceptibly. A cut is made and we learn the two have searched Holland, Denmark, Yemen, and Turkey, to no avail. Kid (Finnegan Oldfield) has grown into a young man increasingly skeptical of his father’s obsession. Alain has lost his daughter, his wife, his job, and is in danger of losing his son as well.
But the stakes have become more than personal. As in Bruno Dumont’s “Hadewijch” (2009), Kelly’s boyfriend has drawn her into the nightmare of jihad. The fallen towers of 9/11 appear on TV, and the search overlaps with the war on terrorism. When John C. Reilly as “The American” shows up offering cynical guidance, the object of the search becomes ambiguous and elusive. Unlike “The Searchers,” which ends with the profundity of a closed door, Bidegain’s cowboys don’t know what they have lost, or found.
Directed by Thomas Bidegain. Written by Bidegain and Noé Debré. Starring François Damiens, Maxim Driesen, Iliana Zabeth, Finnegan Oldfield. At Kendall Square. 104 minutes. Rated R (for a brief violent image and a scene of drug use). In English and French, Flemish, Arabic, and Pashtun, with subtitles.