There’s a twinge of activism amid the threads of Robert Duvall‘s latest directorial effort Wild Horses. Although a traditional crime story, Duvall slightly subverts this simple approach, casting himself as a man confronted with a lifestyle he doesn’t quite understand, exploring an ideological message rather unexpected for a film like this. It’s an interesting choice and potentially effective one. Unfortunately, it’s packaged in a middling, mediocre framework that’s inert almost from the word “go”.
The film opens with Scott Briggs (Duvall), a ranch owner, finding his son, Ben (James Franco), fooling around with another man in their barn. He ultimately chases the kid off and we flash forward fifteen years to learn the young man Briggs chased off that night actually disappeared. The police never found a body or a suspect. Now, Samantha Payne (Luciana Duvall), a Texas ranger, has decided to reopen the case. She suspects the missing boy was murdered as a result of a hate crime, and her decision to reopen the case happens to coincide with Ben’s return home to his father’s ranch after many years. Feeling pressure from both his son and the ranger, Scott sees his world start collapsing around him.
The biggest thorn in this film’s side is the ranger character played by Duvall’s real life wife. Not only is she giving a performance that sounds like she learned her lines phonetically, but her plotline is ultimately pointless. She’s investigating the disappearance of this kid, but her investigation gets little to no information out of anyone. To cap it off, the finale is separate from her story entirely, making almost everything she did to that point superfluous. The only value to the story her character adds is reopening the case in the first ten minutes of the movie, then she goes around town, getting rebuked by the people she wants to talk to as we wait for her to make a breakthrough. She never does.
While the central mystery feels like it isn’t going anywhere, neither does the rest of the movie. When we’re not following Samantha, we are with Scott Briggs, who is not a particularly likable or charismatic guy, something Duvall is typically great at capturing. He’s supposed to be playing a bigot, but he takes it too far. Most people in town seem to like him, but you never get a sense as to why. And most of his scenes feel kind of random.
For instance, there is a “big” reveal regarding a relationship between Briggs and his Mexican house worker (Angie Cepeda), but once that happens, the character disappears from the film completely. The reveal makes thematic sense for what the movie is trying to accomplish, but narratively, you’re left scratching your head. The same could be said for Briggs’ sort of friendship with a local corrupt cop (Jim Parrack). It feels like there was so much left on the cutting room floor, hopefully explaining these loose plot strands, but instead we get patchwork.
Aside from Mrs. Duvall, the cast here all give serviceable performances. I can’t place any fault on Franco, Cepeda, Josh Hartnett, Adriana Barraza, or Devon Abner for their work here. They are all given one-note, paper-thin characters, so they obviously cannot do much with them. It was, however, refreshing to see a movie where James Franco wasn’t giving an unbearable performance. A rarity lately.
The whole movie hinges on if, or more appropriately when, Scott Briggs will come to realize he can accept his gay son for who he is. He has no patience or sympathy for anyone not like him. We see him chase off illegal immigrants with armed force. He refuses to believe he even found his son with a guy. The only place for his character arc to go is for him to finally accept the truth, so there isn’t much room for any drama there.
I do applaud Duvall for trying to make a message movie in a different way. Typically, message movies are preaching to the choir, and they can get boring. Wild Horses certainly is boring, but here, Duvall mixes a traditional story with a little less traditional ideology. That said, the boredom comes as a result of the execution, not the message.