It was difficult to describe just how disjointed Wild Horses was until memories of old DVD menus danced in my head. Many movies on DVD (or even Blu-ray!) have deleted scenes in their special features, and a number of those have the “Play All” option. That’s what Wild Horses feels like. Writer/Producer/Director/Actor Robert Duvall’s latest film connects together as awkwardly as a run of excised, subpar scenes transition from one to the next. Where do these scenes come from? Where is the movie about an under-the-radar Texas Ranger who stumbles upon a gang of drug runners on the Mexican border? Where is the movie about the son who returns home years after being chased away by his “good ol’ boy” father? Too many questions, not enough pig roasts.
Wild Horses begins 15 years ago, where we, along with rancher Scott Briggs (Duvall), discover his son Ben (James Franco) involved in a homosexual affair late one night. He scares his son’s lover away before berating and beating Ben for his “sins.” After the action ends, he hears a rustling in his barn, and we cut to present day. What follows is family strife, town secrets, drug running, questions of heritage, and, of course, wild horses.
Duvall’s method of mixing together professional actors with amateurs in his films works more often than it doesn’t, adding a sense of authenticity to a number of scenes. This process is at its peak when it comes to Briggs’ cook, a delightful old man with a great, big white beard, but at times it highlights the obvious professional lurking in the background. When a number of people are introduced before True Blood’s Jim Parrack appears, we know he has a bigger role to play later on despite a two-second-long introduction. His role as a dirty cop, instructed by Briggs to run off investigating Texas Ranger Sam (Duvall’s wife, Luciana), is part of a subplot that threatens and ultimately derails Wild Horses.
It’s a shame because Luciana Duvall is quite good as Sam, playing the Texas Ranger as no-nonsense and unassuming, always observant but quick with a witty retort (Briggs tells her he wasn’t aware there were lady rangers, and Sam informs him women can also vote now). Multiple plot threads are usually welcomed, but in Wild Horses, Duvall spends too much time on a character who gets sixth billing (Parrack) instead of his fictional household.
Not that the household gets much respect. Instead of focusing on the banished son returning home, another subplot revolving around a family will detracts from what should be the film’s true plot point. There is a small film in here somewhere about Briggs, his children (including Josh Hartnett), and Ben’s missing lover from years ago. The cast and crew are ready and present, Barry Markowitz’s cinematography is glorious (Utah as a stand-in for Texas), and the humor flows nicely. The relationship between Briggs and his grandson is particularly charming, as well as a phone call during what we think is an epic horse ride.
Wild Horses doesn’t come close to Duvall’s well-regarded 1997 film, The Apostle, and there isn’t anything wrong with that, per se. There isn’t even anything wrong with this being a bad movie; it’s just too bad that it is. People make crucial mistakes in the movie that are easily avoidable, but probably would mean that most of Wild Horses wouldn’t exist. At one point Briggs tries to explain that “sometimes men do strange things.” The same came be applied to how Duvall set out to tell his story about family, the border, wild horses, homosexuality, drug running, corruption, disappearances, etc., etc., etc.