The spirit of the American West lives on in France, of all places, where devotees don their cowboy hats and jeans to attend carnivals where they ride horses and dance to country music. While the hard-scrabble attitude endures, one can’t help but wonder where the lawless frontier itself now lies — precisely the question screenwriter Thomas Bidegain explores in “Les Cowboys.” Bidegain, who for years has served as the muscle behind Jacques Audiard’s scripts, advances his ongoing deconstruction of genre-movie masculinity in his uncompromising, anti-romantic directorial debut, transposing the myth of John Ford’s “The Searchers” to the modern era when one of these ersatz cowboys’ daughters disappears, sending her Marlboro-man father off in hopeless pursuit. Here, instead of being abducted by Comanches, the girl converts to Islam, touching on still-raw racial prejudices in a pared-down, elliptical art film that’s tough to watch, yet continues to haunt in the weeks that follow.
There was a time in America cinema, circa 1979, when all the big dogs — Scorsese, Lucas, Spielberg, Cimino, Milius — seemed to be reinterpreting “The Searchers” in their own way. The film’s spirit can be felt in everything from “Taxi Driver” to “The Deer Hunter,” and served as a direct inspiration for Paul Schrader’s “Hardcore.” That influence has receded in recent years, which makes Bidegain’s updated take on the material (co-written with fellow Audiard collaborator Noe Debre) feel both powerfully original and unexpectedly classical at the same time, like a throwback to those great 1970s American dramas about which the industry still waxes nostalgic.
Given the span of years it covers, “Les Cowboys” couldn’t be entirely cutting-edge anyway. The story begins in 1995 in what may as well be another world, at least as far as Muslim relations are concerned. We meet Alain (Francois Damiens) at one of the aforementioned cowboy fairs, where he climbs onstage and sings “Tennessee Waltz” for a crowd of encouraging friends, then descends to share a dance with his 16-year-old daughter, not realizing that this will be their last waltz. By the end of the evening, she will have vanished without explanation.
At first, Alain assumes that she has been kidnapped. He loses his temper with the police and tries to intimidate her Muslim b.f.’s family, but a letter arrives a few days later in which she explains that she has left, begging her father not to look for her. Of course, Alain refuses to let her go and instead escalates his search. Damiens, a typically genial actor most recently seen as the goofy patriarch in the crowdpleaser “La Famille Belier,” plays the polar opposite here: He’s intense and single-minded, and there’s no telling what he’s capable of once he loses his temper.
Like George C. Scott in “Hardcore,” he launches his own investigation. With little to go on, he heads to the big city, where he spots a detail too subtle for audiences to register at first: a dark-skinned girl wearing the red cowboy handkerchief he’d given Kelly at the carnival. Stalking the child, he finds a group of trailers parked in an abandoned lot, but they’ve cleared out before the cops can get there — and so proceeds his hunt, with Alain always a step or two behind, across borders and over time. The gaps grow wider and more frustrating to follow: We see him in Syria, and learn that he was in Yemen the year before.
After 9/11, her younger brother George, aka “Kid” (Finnegan Oldfield), joins in the search. He’s now old enough to get involved, and of course, the World Trade Center attacks intensify the family’s dedication to rescue Kelly. The thing that has made “The Searchers” such a potent model over the years isn’t just the dynamic of the pursuit, but the subtext: In that film, John Wayne’s character sets out to rescue his abducted niece, but after realizing that her captors have almost certainly corrupted her, he resolves to kill her instead. Ford’s movie addresses far more than mere machismo, but the underlying racism and fear of the other, which works especially well in Bidegain’s scenario.
Up front, Kelly makes it clear that she is rejecting her Western/Christian/capitalist way of life in favor of the Muslim alternative. This choice doesn’t compute with Alain, who feels compelled to pull her back from its clutches. In a backroom in Syria, a man tells him, “Your daughter is not your daughter anymore.” By contrast, Kid seems less inflexible. Traveling to Afghanistan, where he meets a mercenary American trader played by John C. Reilly, the young man allows the search to change him — and learns that his sister was strong enough to know what she wanted. Kid’s only wish is to see Kelly again, to know that she’s all right, and the resolution of that goal packs an almost nuclear emotional wallop.
Perhaps the biggest difference between “Les Cowboys” and all other variations on “The Searchers” that have come before is co-writers Bidegain and Debre’s uncanny gift for telling stories via seemingly mundane scenes. The duo have honed the ability to convey vital character and plot information through deceptively ordinary “in-between” scenes (Kelly’s eventual reappearance being the best example, though her offscreen disappearance reinforces the strategy), organizing the loose yet linear chronology into chapters, each headed by a character’s name — some of which are actually aliases for the same person, the way “Kelly” and “Aafia” reflect the missing girl’s names before and after her conversion.
This tactic of indirect drama is as true of Bidegain’s previous scripts (cf. “Rust and Bone,” “Saint Laurent” or “Our Children”) as it is his directorial debut, though it’s even more pronounced here. The novice helmer so far lacks the cinematic eye of collaborators Audiard or Bertrand Bonello, depriving his staging of a certain visual interest. While the result may be too low-key for American audiences, Bidegain’s approach respects his viewers’ intelligence and rewards those willing to put in the work.