A version of this story ran in the July 2015 issue.
Above: Josh Hartnett and James Franco in Wild Horses.
Twenty minutes into Wild Horses, the new Western from writer/director/star Robert Duvall, a grizzled Texas rancher named Scott Briggs hides with his son behind some brush, watching a small group of Mexican men fill a Jeep with drugs they’ve just smuggled over the border. The border butts up against Briggs’ property and, being a grizzled Texas rancher, he figures it’s his responsibility (Hell, if the federal government won’t do it…) to patrol it — just him, his son and a couple of rifles against a rising tide of lawlessness. A short firefight ends with the Jeep in flames, the Mexicans dashing off into the night, and Briggs and his son heading home to await their inevitable reckoning at the hands of some very disgruntled drug lords.
And then… nothing. No reckoning, no revenge, no betrayals, no climactic confrontations, no drug lords, no murder, no fun at all. It’s as if the showdown in the desert never happened. Briggs and his son (Josh Hartnett) turn their attention to other concerns, and a storyline most filmmakers would take an entire movie to unpack and television showrunners whole multi-season arcs to develop just disappears into the desert air like the smoke from a burning Jeep. America’s drug crisis — solved in a single night.
That sequence and its lack of aftermath tell you everything you need to know about Wild Horses, which had its world premiere earlier this year at the SXSW Film Festival and was released in June on DVD. Everything about the film, from the dialogue to the casting to the directing, feels incomplete and unexamined, as if Duvall (who is now 84) had a thousand ideas but a sense that his time for exploring them was slipping away, so he decided to tackle them all in one movie. The drug war, illegal immigration, gay rights, family feuds, spousal abuse, fathers and sons, fathers and daughters, sexism, racism, border wars, corrupt cops, Mexican street gangs: Duvall gives them all the courtesy of a quick glance.
It’s a shame, too, because the movie’s premise had so much potential. One night, Briggs comes upon his other son, Ben (played by James Franco), having an intimate moment with Jimmy, one of the ranch hands, and goes all Yosemite Sam on them, hooting and hollering and (literally) firing his pistol into the ceiling before chasing Ben off, shouting Bible passages after him. As for Jimmy, he’s never seen or heard from again. Flash forward 15 years and Jimmy’s mother is asking the Texas Rangers to reopen the cold case on her missing son. A female ranger (played by Duvall’s real-life wife, Luciana Pedraza) agrees and starts digging around in their community’s past, discovering all kinds of nastiness and lies and corruption.
So the stage has been set for a dark, twisting narrative about buried secrets and deep family divisions, a bloodstained domestic drama disguised as a police procedural. Unfortunately, what Duvall gives us instead is a soap-opera morass of lifeless exposition and meandering distractions. Subplots, including the one involving the drug smugglers, appear just long enough to steal viewers’ attention from the movie’s main thread, and then vanish. As a consequence, redemption and forgiveness aren’t really earned; they’re just passed out to the characters at the end of the movie like elementary school participation ribbons.
Duvall doesn’t make things easy on himself, steering a largely nonprofessional cast of actors through the emotional and aesthetic minefield that is making a movie. Among that cast are several actual Texas Rangers (who have considered Duvall an honorary colleague ever since Lonesome Dove) and his talent-free wife, who, as the obsessed detective, responds to enjoying a barbecue and surviving a gang hit with the exact same look of bland indifference. Not that it’s entirely the actors’ fault. John Gielgud and Laurence Olivier together wouldn’t have been able to find the humanity, or even the sense, in a line such as “Hate can bring confusion to a man who wants to control everything and everyone around him.” Some tasks are beyond even the masters.
Maybe Duvall just didn’t have enough time or money to settle in and make the movie that Wild Horses wanted to be. Or maybe when you’re a Hollywood legend no one complains when your plot points make no sense or your dialogue sounds like something rescued from George Lucas’ trash bin. Or maybe Wild Horses was just born under a bad star, a well-meaning misfire that was doomed to become a cautionary tale for filmmakers with too much to say and not enough art to say it.