Robert Duvall has settled nicely into the Lovable Old Coot phase of his career, but he doesn’t seem to be slowing down. The 84-year-old living legend wrote, directed, and stars in “Wild Horses,” a sturdy Texas-set drama about an old rancher settling his affairs at the end of his life. Duvall acquits himself well enough behind the camera, but it’s his onscreen work that’s most impressive. He gave himself a difficult role that requires him to be alternately grandfatherly and malicious, and darned if he isn’t convincing both ways.
A prologue set 15 years ago shows Duvall’s character, Scott Briggs, chasing his teenage son off the ranch at gunpoint for having a gay relationship. In the present, old man Briggs is fondly regarded by the ranch’s mostly Mexican household staff, and by the townsfolk in general. His virulent homophobia (which has abated but little) is countered by his goodwill toward needy immigrants and his affection for his grandchildren.
The gay son, Benny (James Franco), returns now to hear the reading of his father’s newly revised will, which contains bombshells that do not ultimately affect the plot. He’s joined by his brothers, KC (Josh Hartnett) and Johnny (Devon Abner), who are still in Dad’s good graces and have continued in the family business in this small town of good ol’ boys who look out for each other.
The meat of the story concerns the events of 15 years ago. At the same time that Benny was kicked out, the ranch hand he’d been fooling around with disappeared and was never heard from again. A dogged Texas Ranger, Samantha Payne (Luciana Pedraza Duvall, the filmmaker’s wife), has reopened the case, and questioning everyone all over again. Here’s where we see that Scott Briggs has a mean streak, and perhaps something to hide.
Franco and Duvall have a couple of well-wrought scenes together, hashing things out as father and son. The other brothers are underused in the story, but there’s an enjoyable fraternal-bonding sequence involving all three of them and a bar fight. Other characters, like the maid’s daughter (Angie Cepeda), whom the boys regarded as a sister growing up, and the doughy local cops, add color to Duvall’s portrait of the changing West.
But tonally, the movie is all over the place. Some weighty matters are treated whimsically, while others are handled gravely. It’s not clear how seriously we’re supposed to take Briggs’ misdeeds and his misuse of power, or how seriously Duvall takes them. As both writer and director, he seems unsure about committing to a particular attitude. And as they say on the rodeo circuit, you don’t rope calves with hesitant lassos (they don’t say that). When the emotional punches in “Wild Horses” come, they don’t hit as hard as they might have if we’d been truly invested. Still, though it may be more schmaltzy fiction than serious literature, it’s an earnest film, and a solid, respectable piece of entertainment.
B (1 hr., 40 min.; )
Originally published at Vanity Fair.