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Les Cowboys Review

My review for The Eagle

Les Cowboys riffs on John Ford’s The Searchers in a modern-day take on the story of a father looking for his lost daughter. Screenwriter Thomas Bidegain’s previous films Le Prophete and Rust and Bone showcased the same subdued yet visceral ethos that he brings to his directorial debut here.

The film opens at a country-western fair in France, in 1995. Alain (Francois Damiens), his wife, and two kids, Kelly and Georges/Kid, are the epitome of the wholesome family. The person who rides off into the sunset is no valiant cowboy, however, but Alain’s sixteen-year-old daughter Kelly. In the original film, the “bad guys” are the Comanches (racism found its way into cowboys movies, too). Bidegain’s Les Cowboys centers on “the Other” of present day–”radical” Muslims.

As Alain begins to search for Kelly, he discovers her notebooks (filled with Islamic propaganda) and finds out she has run away with her boyfriend Ahmed (whom they did not even know existed). What is especially mesmerizing about the film is that the suspense does not come from wondering if the father will find his daughter–very early on in the film, Kelly sends the family a letter asking them not to look for her and that she has chosen this life for herself.

So, we know immediately this will not be a more cerebral Taken or a whodunit. Alain’s all-consuming obsession with finding Kelly is what is most poignant and engrossing; his pain and bewilderment are palpable. Played with firebrand intensity by Francois Damiens, we see the same ardent love a father feels for his daughter transformed into an equally devouring, Don Quixotian quest that incinerates everything in its path–Alain, too, in the most literal sense. Alain goes everywhere from Syria to Yemen and Amsterdam, a broken man trying to find a broken bond. When a smuggler tells him that his daughter is not his daughter anymore, we can see how true yet utterly hollow that rings to a father.

9/11 happens and Georges/Kid (Finnegan Oldfield), Kelly’s brother, starts working for a relief organization in Afghanistan, secretly hoping to run into her somehow. John C. Reilly makes a (somewhat comedic) appearance as an American mercenary. The cadence of Les Cowboys is certainly compelling; the plot unfurls at an engrossing clip. The way traditional western film tropes are translated into the present is also quite creative. Kid, unlike his father, doesn’t want to pull Kelly away from her new life. He simply wants to see her and make sure she is alright. The final scene packs a stunningly emotional wallop, sans any words exchanged.

Les Cowboys will haunt you long after it’s over, and not because of what it states outright but because of what it implies. The dialogue is minimal to non-existent, yet the actors are able to educe a lyricality from their characters that is eloquent beyond any words. Alain’s character is stoic, like a true cowboy, but he is not one-dimensional.

The film also obliquely addresses racism and Islamophobia by pulling it out of the shadows, without commenting on it. In one scene, a man tells Alain that “now that you see how we live, you understand what has happened”–Alain gets enraged that the man is trying to engage him in some sort of a political discussion when all he cares about is Kelly and nothing else. The scene speaks volumes about how hatred also grows out of thin air–we don’t get the sense that Alain holds any prejudices until the fruitless quest that saps everything from him leads him to the point of calling the people he encounters “ragheads.”

Les Cowboys chooses to stay mum on politics, yet Kelly’s character who voluntarily chooses to leave her Western lifestyle behind, also offers a trenchant perspective that belies the broad-strokes stereotype of “brain-washed” and “abducted” women as the only ones who join radical Islamists. Nevertheless, just because it lacks in histrionics, it is no less moving. Les Cowboys does not ride off easily into the sunset without jostling you awake first and making you question the difference between good and bad guys and searches and crusades.


Rust And Bone Movie Review

My review of Rust And Bone

Rust and Bone could not have had a more apropos soundtrack to its trailer than M83′s “My Tears Are Becoming A Sea.” It’s a love story, yet Rust And Bone will sweep you off your feet in the most unromantic of ways, as though being swept away by an inexorable tide. Director Jacques Audiard follows up his last film, the highly-lauded and Oscar-nominated A Prophet, by delving deeper into some more emotional territory. Whereas A Prophet was about an Arab man who finds himself working for a Corsican gang while in prison and found an incendiary intensity to it, it lacked a bit in its character-developing angle. Rust And Bone (the title refers to the taste left in one’s bleeding mouth after being punched) is a raw and visceral powerhouse of a film.

Matthias Schoenaerts (who brings more of the brutish relentlessness he employed in his lead in the much-acclaimed and Oscar-nominated Bullhead of last year) plays Ali, a former boxer. We first meet walking doggedly towards an unknown destination, trailed by his 5-year-old son, whom he barely knows. The two end up in the south of France, in Antibes, where they stay with Ali’s sister, whom he has not seen in five years. Yes, relationships are not Ali’s forte. He starts working as a bouncer, where he meets the brash and beautiful Stephanie (Marion Cotillard), a whale trainer at Marineland, whom he literally rescues from a brawl she has incited. In his brutish, deadpan delivery, he remarks that she is “dressed like a whore,” and leaves his number with her matter-of-factly, expecting her to follow suit with all the other women who seem all to happy to fall in bed (not love) with him.
A freak accident at the marine park causes Stephanie to lose both of her legs. Despondent and literally broken, she reaches out to him, for lack of anyone else (pushing people away is definitely something Ali knows a thing or two about, also). Not one to let her guard down either, the two form a quiet bond: Ali never comments on her vulnerability or allows for any rumination on her new state, instead opting to build her up by simple gestures like bringing her to the beach and swimming with her on his back. Seemingly motivated out of nothing more than pure selfishness or lust, he nevertheless draws her out and away from a place of fissure.
Marion Cotillard’s performance absolutely steals the show. She portrays Stephanie’s fractured body and soul with a mesmerizing combination of vulnerability and steely strength. When Ali becomes involved in the brutal world of illegal street fighting, it is her singularity as “the woman with the steel legs” that allows her to enter it and give him the support his own broken self needs.
Rust and Bone does not mince any words; there are no sweeping, saccharine romantic gestures. The leads might as well be spitting “I love yous” through gritted teeth and blood-filled mouths. Both Stephanie and Ali are tough, barely reaching through to each other in the few chinks in their respective armors. Their characters, however, are very real, relentlessly and pitilessly so. Pulling no punches, this is a movie about fighting and surviving. While in some ways hearkening back to similar broken-body-and-spirit stories like The Wrestler, Rust and Bone is thoroughly unique in its ethos. The stunning cinematography of the sea and the fight scenes lend a cinema-veritas edge to the film that is equal parts beautiful and brutal. It is a haunting yet thoroughly engrossing film that stays true to Audiard’s oeuvre.