Wild Horses (2015): Robert Duvall Misses the Mark in Familial Film

Robert Duvall, James Franco, Josh Hartnett in Wild Horses

What does an Oscar winning performer do when he want’s work for his younger wife? He writes and directs a couple of films. Wild Horses is the latest offering from 84 year-old Robert Duvall, the 2015 film is his second work as “auteur.” The first was Assassination Tango  in 2002 and that film also had his wife Luciana Pedraza as a member of the cast. Granted, the two were not yet married, but they were before the end of 2004 bowed out and the couple were living together seven years prior to their tying the knot.  

What does this have to do with Duvall’s somnambulistic modern-day western/mystery? Quite a  lot when one considers that the latest missus Duvall would most likely not have been cast as the female Texas Ranger who has the unenviable task of questioning Duvall’s character about the 15 year-old disappearance of a gay teenager.

Robert Duvall plays Scott Briggs, a wealthy and   irascible old rancher who is on his last legs.  At the beginning of the film he chases his son off the ranch for being gay. Years later, the mother of his son’s boyfriend wants closure on the disappearance of her child. She asks Texas Ranger Samantha Payne (Luciana Duvall nee, Pedraza) to open the cold case and the female ranger is pointed in the direction of Briggs, who was always the major suspect in the boy’s disappearance.

The film has an impressive cast overall. James Franco plays Ben Briggs, the gay teenager all grown up and Josh Hartnett plays his brother K.C. Briggs. True Blood alumnus  Jim Parrack plays Deputy Rogers and  Angie Cepeda is Maria, the Briggs’ brother’s half-sister. 

With all the experience on screen it is amazing that this august effort from Duvall is awkward, dull and lacks any real chemistry between any of the actors. Duvall can be forgiven for falling back on playing the same sort of character that he’s played before, he is after all  helming the  feature.

Essentially his Scott Briggs is another version of the character he played most recently in The Judge and prior to that A Night in Old Mexico.  (Although both roles could be said to be shades of his  retired Texas Ranger in the 1989 television mini-series Lonesome Dove.)  The former film, with Robert Downey Jr was an exercise in frustration and boredom and the latter film was actually quite good, albeit also a tad disappointing.

Wild Horses feels like a low/no budget Indie product with too many actors who are not professional or experienced. Sadly, for whatever reason, Duvall opted to put his wife with performers who sounded like they were reading their lines from cue-cards. While Luciana has a stilted delivery to her dialogue, it could have worked to her advantage were she not put with other’s whose performances were so wooden.

*Sidenote* It did work for a little while. Those who have worked with men and women from law enforcement will recognize that awkward delivery of pronouncement. Perhaps it comes from all that spouting of legalese that does not sound like real language at all but most cops, aka policemen and women, have that very dry delivery. Too much of this, however, just makes the viewer tune out. Had Pedraza/Duvall had more presence and authority it might have worked regardless of her stilted delivery.

Duvall’s character, like the rest of the characters in the film is just not likable.  Perhaps the only two roles  in the entire film that elicit any empathy  are Franco’s gay estranged son and Cepeda’s Maria. One is the “odd man out” and the other the offspring fathered on the other side of the sheets. Neither character gets enough screen time however so what little feelings the audience develop never have a chance to deepen.

Scott Briggs is apparently dying, one assumes from a heart condition and later when he reveals that his time is short, the audience do not really care. Briggs only tries for redemption because he is dying. How much more noble would it have been for his character to release the mother from her agony of not knowing her son’s fate,  without the specter of death forcing him to come clean.

This was a disappointing offering from such a powerhouse performer and Academy Award winner. There does have to be a huge amount of admiration, however, for an octogenarian who has the mettle to not only write and direct a feature length film (his second in 13 years), but to star in it as well.  Unfortunately it just does not work.

While the beautiful backdrop of Utah, where the film was shot, provides some gorgeous scenery to look at, the film just feels forced, false and feeble. This is a sad reflection on an actor who is not only a legend, but an icon as well.  Speaking as a long time Robert Duvall fan, this was bitterly disappointing.

Wild Horses is a 2.5 out of 5 star film. While not as abysmal as that other Lonesome Dove alumni Tommy Lee Jones’ The Homesman,  Duvall’s latest is one of those films that audiences and fans can wait for. This is a “late night” film, something to watch when courting sleep.

%d bloggers like this: