'Wild Horses': SXSW Review

Wild Horses Still - H 2015
Courtesy of SXSW

Wild Horses Still - H 2015

A promising Western family drama muddled up with cop-film subplots

Robert Duvall plays a rancher struggling to accept his gay son, played by James Franco.

Returning to the director's chair for the first time in more than a decade, Robert Duvall would appear to be playing to his strengths in Wild Horses. Casting himself as a Texas rancher who ran off his son (James Franco) years ago when he learned he was gay, he sets a scene allowing for both poignant reconciliations and the dredging up of family secrets. Unfortunately, his attempt to create a multigenerational Lone Star-like mystery doesn't gel as John Sayles's film did, leaving so many dramatic moments unresolved that one wonders how many scenes must have been left on the cutting-room floor. A top-flight cast will attract attention on video, but the theatrical performances don't come close to matching Duvall's 1997 directing breakthrough The Apostle.

Duvall's Scott Briggs is seen first in a 15-years-ago flashback, sneaking into a small barn in the middle of the night and catching two young men whispering in the dark. With gunshots and curses, he scares off both his son Ben (Franco) and Ben's friend Jimmy. We soon learn that Ben moved off to the city after the incident, and Jimmy was never seen again.

Returning to the present, Jimmy's mother (Adriana Barraza) has convinced Texas Ranger Samantha Payne (Luciana Pedraza Duvall, the director's wife) to take a fresh look at the case of Jimmy's disappearance. As thin as a post and no more revealing of what's on her mind, the "lady Ranger" (as the good ol' boys call her) isn't as deferential as her older colleagues: If Scott Briggs is the most likely person to have information, she'll drive right onto his ranch to question him. Irate at what he sees as an invasion of his privacy, Briggs enlists a deputy (Jim Parrack) to follow her around. The deputy, on his own initiative, recruits some gang-bangers to put a scare into her. (Those scare tactics lead to the first of a few puzzling narrative dead-ends in the film, with a big chase scene concluding with not a word of follow-up in the script.)

Back on the ranch, Briggs has contrived an awkward family reunion, using Ben's friendship with longtime ranch worker Maria (Angie Cepeda, who appeared with Duvall in A Night in Old Mexico) to get him home for a few days. Scenes of the two men interacting, with brother KC (Josh Hartnett) and others in the mix, hint at a more satisfying film that might have resulted if Duvall had been content to focus on his character's domestic conflicts. Scott has clearly suffered for his prejudices and his pride and loves his son; he's even willing to apologize, albeit on his own schedule, in a straightforward and moving way.

But Payne's investigation becomes thornier than the film can handle comfortably, involving not only extraneous subplots about police corruption but an ill-conceived attempt at intimidation from KC that comes nearly out of nowhere and goes nowhere as well. These seem designed to give Pedraza Duvall more to do, but less would be more in this case: Though she does fit well with the director's strategy of mixing West Texas non-actors with established thesps, she isn't as skilled as those in major roles here, and the film's believability suffers for it. The film's closing scene, which pictures her riding off on horseback with her son and husband, actually makes it seem she's the star of the show — a puzzling thing indeed in this fathers-and-sons tragedy.

Production company: Patriot Pictures

Cast: Robert Duvall, James Franco, Josh Hartnett, Luciana Pedraza Duvall, Adriana Barraza, Jim Parrack, Angie Cepeda, Devon Abner

Director-Screenwriter: Robert Duvall

Producers: Robert Duvall, Rob Carliner, Michael Mendelsohn, Mark Mathis

Executive producer: Arnold Rifkin

Director of photography: Barry Markowitz

Production designer: Adam Hughes Henderson

Costume designer: Camile Morris

Editor: Cary Gries

Music: Timothy Williams

Casting director: Ed Johnston

No rating, 102 minutes