The archetypal film cowboy is a man with rawhide skin, an unshakable moral code, and a firearm to enforce it. Wild Horses‘ Scott Briggs is no different; to him, gays are evil, his land is sacred, and if you trespass he will shoot your legs out from under you, right after he gets help climbing onto his horse.
In his latest directorial vision, Robert Duvall takes up the saddle as the octogenarian Briggs to explore how his prejudicial value system has torn his diverse family apart. Coinciding with the estranged family’s reunion is an investigation into the disappearance of Briggs’s outed son’s lover, led by Samantha, a Texas Ranger. These competing narratives are connected haphazardly by visual transitions that feel like someone sat on the DVD remote, plus jarring tonal shifts between intimate conversations and tire-spinning car chases.
Every laborious minute spent with Luciana Duvall as Samantha, in a subplot that goes nowhere, is 60 seconds spent wishing the film stuck with Briggs’s richly dramatic and ultimately underdeveloped familial relationships. Despite the hogtied narrative momentum, Duvall has crafted a lifelike portrait of rural Texas life. Here small-town rumors and politics are the greatest threats to family, and being seen as different is an unforgivable sin.
Duvall fills his frames with nonprofessional actors to sell the authenticity of the place; of particular note is Briggs’s bearded cook, who brings a roasted, grinning goat to the dinner table. James Franco and Josh Hartnett hold their own as Briggs’s sons when paired up against Duvall’s fierce performance; their scenes manage to imbue Wild Horses‘ disjointed and sometimes inert script with real life, particularly in one amusing brotherly barroom brawl.