Starring: Robert Duvall, James Franco, Josh Hartnett
Director: Robert Duvall
Mood: If you’re a huge Duvall or Franco fan and enjoy all of their performances and don’t particularly care if everything and everyone else in the movie make any sense.
I’m having the hardest time describing my feelings about Wild Horses.
You know when something isn’t good, but isn’t terrible, and you don’t hate it but you wouldn’t recommend it to a friend? I think I just made the rest of my review irrelevant. Whoops.
It’s like a grapefruit White Claw. It will always be the last one left in a mixed box, or on the shelf, and you’d prefer any other flavour over that one. And if it’s the only flavour left on the shelf, you’ll buy something else instead. But if it came with the mixed box, you’ll still drink it.
I didn’t read too much about Wild Horses before I bought it – I just wanted to see a Western that had both James Franco and Josh Hartnett! I love watching an actor I’ve never seen in a Western. It could be a surprise hit, like Bill Pullman in The Ballad of Lefty Brown or Natalie Portman in Jane Got a Gun… or cringe-worthy AF like Salma Hayek in Bandidas.
Wild Horses is neither, and that’s what makes it so perplexing.
Wild Horses is a modern Western, as in it’s set in current times. I don’t watch a lot of these; I like my Westerns set in the 1800s and full of horseback chases, not GMC pickup trucks. But I’m trying to expand my horizons and keep an open mind, so I sat back and waited to be proven wrong.
In the opening scene, it’s dark and a lot of action happens REALLY F*CKING FAST. What I gathered is that Scott Briggs (Robert Duvall) caught his youngest son messing around with another guy in the barn. He fired his gun at the roof and kicked one of them off his property, ordering him to stop being a pervert and read the Bible. It also looked like someone got killed, maybe? You can’t tell.
Fifteen years later, a Texas Ranger named Samantha Payne (Luciana Duvall) opens a cold case on a missing boy. She quickly comes to suspect he was murdered. A retired Ranger captain (Hank Whitman, who was a legit Texas Ranger up until his retirement in 2019!), tells her he’s always suspected Briggs killed the boy as a hate crime, and that he’s heard Briggs say that “all gays are evil”.
Briggs is hella prosperous, living on a sprawling ranch surrounded by his cook, ranching partner, sons Johnny (Devon Abner) and KC (Josh Hartnett), and KC’s pack of kids who worship their granddad. He’s beloved but also shifty, dodging every serious question by spewing a bunch of nonsensical and unrelated words or just plain riding off on his horse.
Briggs is also dying, so he gets his estranged son Ben (James Franco) back to the ranch. Ben says he won’t forgive his dad for kicking him out, but he’s pretty quick to start bonding with dear ol’ dad again.
Ranger Payne starts asking questions, so the elder Briggs enlists his corrupt cop buddy (Jim Parrack) to scare her away at any cost. Obviously Briggs is a dick and has something to hide, but there’s so much family drama going on that you can’t quite sink your teeth into the murder mystery of it all.
Duvall REALLY wanted to make this movie. He received a script and spent a year and a half rewriting it to a point he felt was workable. He also directed it, and starred in it. He loved the idea of a modern Western that deals with an old man regretting kicking out his gay son, and featuring a female Ranger.
It’s just not a good script. At all. There are some really beautiful scenes, and both plots are good ideas – a gay rancher’s son in Texas, a Ranger chasing down a beloved rancher while corrupt cops try to have her killed. But they don’t make enough sense together. As a result, many of the characters in the family drama sequences feel unnecessary to the story.
There’s also some excellent acting. Like, really f*cking great.
Duvall is on point, giving you the bigoted-yet-repentant old white dude with a dark secret. He plays such a cruel asshole that you hope his whole family leaves him. But then he has these moments where you see so much genuine pain in his eyes, it makes your heart ache.
James Franco is also excellent in his role. If the whole movie focused closer on him and Duvall, it would have been awesome. I loved his confidence, charm, and warmth, while still being a capable shit-kicker.
Josh Hartnett is completely forgettable, which sucks because I was so hoping for a Hartnett comeback. He isn’t BAD, he’s just not given anything to work with.
There are hints that he has a troubled marriage but you never get into that. He’s verbally abused by his dad when he seems to take a stand for what’s right, but comes right back to daddy cracking jokes. And then he’s suddenly menacing toward the Ranger, like he has a sinister side when it comes to family… but it’s only one brief scene.
After Wild Horses was over, I just felt puzzled. What did I just watch? It didn’t sell me on modern Westerns, yet it made me really want to see James Franco in more Westerns. I didn’t hate it, but I did wish I’d picked a different Western.