Morals and Nowheres: Les Cowboys

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Les Cowboys
Directed by Thomas Bidegain
Opens June 24

Les Cowboys, a new film by French director Thomas Bidegain, does a splendid job of situating you in a generally bewildering, intermittently misleading, recognizable yet unfamiliar, frequently uncanny, sometimes alarming, occasionally sublime, overall almost strangely ideologically neutral sort of geographico-political nowhere—one that is also, at certain junctures, a most specific somewhere. Now drifting, now darting, now wandering back and forth through time and place alike, the film meanders around mixed identities, complicated intimacies, ethnicities identifiable and not, and layered-up, quaked chronologies to tell a narratively complex albeit gently handled story whose imaginable moral is nonetheless quite simple: Persons, peoples and histories resist explanation.

So yes, quite a lot of wandering, visio-narrative and otherwise. And yes, more than a few unexpected turns taken. Such nebulous movement makes for a lot of ambiguity, for certain, yet at root, it’s anything but aimless. Indeed, the aim of the quest, the subject of the search remains the same from beginning to end. That is, from the moment a teenage girl named Kelly disappears from a most befuddlingly convincing American-southwest-style hoedown somewhere in eastern France—complete with country music, cowboy regalia, US flags and folk dancing—her family enters a state of agitation, grief and anger that can only be slightly alleviated by an all-in attempt to figure out what happened to her, why she left, whom she’s with. Embodied most dramatically by her father, Alain, and brother, Kid, this mode of manic drive is often thwarted but never dissipates. “I have the life I’ve chosen now,” Kelly—now Aafia Khalid, wife of Ahmed—writes to her family not long after her departure. Her family, meanwhile, is apparently left with no choice but to deal with her absence by trying to make sense of it—and to perhaps bring her home, which proves an increasingly implausible notion. “What you are doing is pointless. Your daughter is not your daughter anymore,” Alain is told at one point. Nonetheless, information he picks up here and there will take him and Kid—now together, now separately—to Yemen, Denmark, Turkey, Pakistan and Belgium, and through countless other somewheres and nowheres along the way. And the years pass and pass. And the family is dealt a consistently more hopeless, harrowing hand. As Kid recalls hearing as a child: “Time passes… You have to start over and over.” It seems that it was always his destiny to live this out.

There is one very specific scene in Les Cowboys in which you know not only where you are, but also precisely what day it is, and more or less what time it is as well. And this will both explain and further confuse the film’s ostensible greater context of War-on-Terror-era politics. But again, the story’s mixed narratives and shifting viewpoints prevent it from being fundamentally about all of that. Rather, the film is a most strangely crafted western of sorts pertaining to identities, families, and senses of belonging all lost, perhaps eventually to be regained. You’ll be both relieved and wrecked to hear a certain most sympathetic character say—indeed, be both alive and able to say—“You brought me here. Now you don’t leave me.” And you’ll find it very difficult to disagree with her sentiments.

Once more, Les Cowboys seems to have an operative moral related to people’s lives resisting explanation. The film itself does a fine job of resisting the same. But it’s a very rewarding narrative to behold, absorb and reflect on, much like any properly timeless fable or parable with a moral at its core. Of additional note is that almost every line delivered by John C. Reilly, the requisite ‘American,’ has been sieved down to purest gold. “We take up too much space,” he remarks to Kid. That statement, and where and why he utters it, will likely stick with you for quite some time.

Paul D’Agostino is @postuccio on Instagram and Twitter.

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