With “Wild Horses,” Robert Duvall returns to the director’s chair for the first time since 2002’s “Assassination Tango.” At 84 years old, his sheer perseverance deserves some measure of recognition. Unfortunately, this low budget western melodrama, which Duvall also wrote and stars in, lacks the sophisticated perspective on parochial American life found in “The Apostle,” Duvall’s best-known directing effort and the one with which “Wild Horses” bears closest resemblance. But whereas “The Apostle” was a passionate effort for Duvall that he spent years pulling together, “Wild Horses” feels more like a vanity project that eschews polished storytelling for half-baked conceits.
Something is slightly off from the very beginning, when Texan ranch owner Scott Briggs (Duvall) comes across his son (James Franco) sleeping with another man in his barn and throws him off the property at gunpoint. The murkily photographed showdown leaves the specific nature of the encounter unclear, much in the way the ensuing plot lacks precision about the kind of story Duvall wants to tell. In any case, the reverberations from that expulsion continue as the movie flashes forward 13 years to the present day, where local detective Samantha (Luciana Duvall) reopens a missing person case involving the subject of the Franco character’s affections.
“Wild Horses” continually shifts between Samantha’s investigation into the Briggs family’s estrangement and Scott’s own attempt to heal his relationship with his three sons as they reunite in the small desert town at his request. Along with Franco, the siblings include bit parts for Josh Hartnett and Jim Parrack, neither of whom develop much depth. Everyone and everything in “Wild Horses” is an archetype: the Southern twang, the expansive landscape and the ensemble of heartland figures all hail from a familiar playbook. Duvall’s strangely muted tone makes it seem as though Duvall had only the basic ingredients of his story figured out when he started filming it.
The ensuing two-pronged narrative never congeals into a satisfactory whole, but Duvall’s script at the very least contains a distinct feel for the isolated setting. With a supporting cast of non-professional actors, many of whom portray cowhands and bull riders clad in cowboy hats, Duvall fleshes out a world of insular, conservative-minded characters for whom the glacial pace of day to day existence takes priority over bigger questions. Such a temperament makes things difficult for Samantha as she continues her quest for answers, just as it does for Franco’s character when he attempts to confront his father about his close-minded perspective on sexuality.
But even as “Wild Horses” depicts these compelling tensions between conflicting value systems with a sincere eye, Duvall never settles on a satisfactory tone. Most scenes feature awkward dialogue delivered in a listless fashion that suggests little attempt to clarify the kind of story Duvall intends to tell. One notable sequence in which Scott gathers his three grown children together for a major revelation surrounding their family history has sensationalistic quality of a soap opera, and the comedic nature of the dialogue suggests little in the way of self-awareness. At times, Duvall’s cast wrestles control of the material, particularly in one amusing chapter that finds the three brothers bonding over their differences at a local bar before teaming up for a fist fight in the parking lot.
But such glimmers of life can’t rescue the overall dramatic inertia of the proceedings, which suffer from flat compositions and bland exposition. In theory, the intriguing blend of genres — small town police procedural meets fiery portrait of family strife — suggests a John Sayles-like investigation into the antiquated value systems of the American west. But with its undercooked finale, which pivots on a fairly obvious revelation, “Wild Horses” ends with a shrug. The final title card deems the movie “a tale that is told,” but like that fragmentary statement, “Wild Horses” has nothing fresh to say.
“Wild Horses” premiered this week at the SXSW Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.