By Daniel Barnes
*Opens Friday at the Clay Theatre in San Francisco.
Long-time Jacques Audiard collaborator Thomas Bidegain makes his directorial debut with this steely-eyed odd duck. It’s precisely the kind of terse tangle of cultural collisions and heavyhanded genre tropes that you would expect from the man who co-wrote Rust and Bone and Dheepan.
Les Cowboys opens on the French prairie, establishing a seemingly contented, pre-9/11 world of bow-legged, Tennessee Waltz-ing weekend cowboys and then almost immediately destabilizing it. When his daughter goes missing at a country fair, possibly following her radical Muslim boyfriend out of the country, determined dad Alain (François Damiens) begins a years-long, globe-spanning search that costs him his marriage and possibly his sanity.
The first half of Les Cowboys unfurls as an almost beat-for-beat contemporary analog of The Searchers, with Alain’s more emotionally measured but equally obsessive son Kid in the Jeffrey Hunter role. However, just when it feels like the film is starting to write itself, another massive twist at the halfway mark completely flips the script, and not necessarily in the right way.
There’s a lot of unique atmosphere in those early scenes, but that gets tabled for a broader and more common take on global politics, and Les Cowboys gets messier the more it tries to fit in its mouth. As with a lot of the Audiard films, though, it’s hard to dismiss something this visceral and ambitious, even if it doesn’t necessarily work.