In your typical crime thriller, activism isn’t high on the list of focal plot points. Right off the bat, that’s what makes Robert Duvall’s latest western, Wild Horses, stand out from the mass of films following relatively similar stories. Writer/director/lead Duvall sets out to show just how hard life can be for someone who can’t adapt to modern thinking and how immensely difficult that can make things for those closest to him, especially when they’re the cause of his rage and confusion.
Scott Briggs (Duvall) is a 70-something rancher stuck in his ways. Fifteen years ago he kicked his son Ben (James Franco) off his property for being gay, but he’s asked him to come back into town so the family can go over his will and try to reconnect. Complicating this reunion is the fact that a Texas ranger, Samantha Payne (Luciana Duvall) has reopened a missing person’s case for a boy who used to work on the Briggs ranch and may have been involved with Ben. As she delves into Scott’s history, he has to try to keep her from uncovering too much of his past and keep his secrets from alienating his sons.
The plot between Scott and Ben is likely worthy of its own movie. The idea of a rancher in his final stages of life trying to reconcile with a son whom he doesn’t understand is a very interesting one, and makes for an enjoyable storyline in the film. Much of that is helped along by how great Franco is. In fact, this may be my favorite James Franco performance of the last few years. There’s a raw realism to how he handles the character, and that really propels all of his scenes along. His interactions with the always-excellent Duvall are easily the highlights of the movie.
The main problem I found with the story is the whole arc surrounding the Texas ranger. Having her investigate the case feels like it was shoehorned into an already solid plot. Nothing Payne does really leads toward any conclusion of the case. All she really serves as is someone to stir up some commotion and get Scott ticked off. While that does fulfill a purpose, the same thing could have been achieved through Ben’s questioning or the mother of the missing boy. It’s not that the plot of a man evading the rangers isn’t interesting, it’s that it’s not the main point of this film, and by not focusing on it, there’s not enough screentime to develop it to a strong enough level.
Duvall chose to use some non-actors in the film, including a few actual Texas rangers. With some of them this provides an authenticity and naturalism to the scenes. Unfortunately though, that’s not always the case. For others, the scenes seem forced due to how painfully aware the cast members are that there’s a camera in the room. Professional actors do what they do for a reason, so it’s always a bold decision to go with another option. Overall, it’s a nice touch, but it fails to pay off as often as it should.
The action in Wild Horses is done remarkably well, especially for such a low budget film. Bullets fly, the car chases are exhilarating, and there’s not a moment of those scenes that’s anything other than intense. Still, this is far from an action movie, and it’s in the interactions between the characters where it really succeeds. Duvall crafts scenes between his character and Franco’s that have a tenderness while avoiding feeling fake. The emotional moments are never force fed, instead they develop in a natural and enjoyable way.
While it undoubtedly has some flaws, Wild Horses is still a very enjoyable film thanks to the interesting focus for a crime story and the wonderful performances from the two leads. It’s a new sort of western, but it’s one nonetheless, and it’s proof that the genre is still alive and kicking.
While far from perfect, Wild Horses has strong enough performances from its leads to make it an enjoyable and worthwhile modern western.