SXSW Review: “Wild Horses” tries and fails to blend family drama and crime narrative

Alex Pelham

“Wild Horses,” the latest offering from director and actor Robert Duvall, attempts to capture the essence of the Texas spirit while juggling a dark crime-drama at the same time. The result is a messy blend of two narratives that separately have potential, but together make for an unengaging film. Most of the actors manage decent performances, but an unfocused story weighed down by unnecessary subplots ultimately results in an unenjoyable, disjointed film.

Duvall plays Scott Briggs, an aging ranch-owner who decides the time is ripe to discuss his will with his family. His distant, gay son (James Franco) returns to the ranch, prompting re-examination of some of the family's dark memories. Years prior, Scott caught his son with a ranch hand and drove them away at gunpoint. The same night, the ranch hand disappeared. Now, a female Texas Ranger (Luciana Duvall) reopens the disappearance case and begins to investigate Scott and the family.

The film’s narrative is basically split into two separate stories, each of them basically representing two different genres. At times, the film is a family drama about reconciliation and acceptance. Simultaneously, it is a murder-mystery filled with gunfights and drug dealing. The two storylines fail to mesh together at all, and the ties connecting them are thin. Duvall seems to have been in love with both ideas. Though he clearly tried his best to incorporate both, he ultimately created a mediocre compromise with two plots constantly fighting for the audience’s attention.

One positive aspect of the film is Duvall’s performance. His take on a conflicted, conservative rancher is stunning. He shows an accurate portrayal of a father trying to understand and bond with his family. Franco is decent as his son, and his struggle to reconcile with his father feels real. If the movie focused entirely on their relationship, it would have had the opportunity to really go in-depth on this interesting connection between father and son. Luciana Duvall, who is Duvall’s real-life spouse, is lackluster as a tough-as-nails ranger. She speaks with a confusing accent that seem half-Texan and half-European, and ultimately doesn’t add anything to the story. She just meanders about and doesn’t have much pull in moving the plot forward.

The Texas of the film, a place where everyone owns a farm and wears a cowboy hat twenty-four hours a day, comes off as a weird, fantasy land. In a scene toward the beginning, Scott hosts a family barbeque that transcends into a list of stereotypes associated with living the quaint "Texas" lifestyle. All the kids are learning how to make a lasso, while all the adults are decked out in plaid and denim. This isn’t a realistic take on Texas, and doesn't feel like a place where a murder mystery is supposed to be unfolding. This is the Texas of Budweiser commercials, and it’s jarring that a dark story is thrust in the middle of it.

“Wild Horses” wants to be a brooding, crime drama set in a bright, happy countryside in Texas, but the contrast never transcends "clunky." Duvall gets greedy and packs everything he can into the film, and the audience is worse off for it. The shifting storylines steal focus from his and Franco’s good performances. If "Wild Horses" didn’t spend so much time on convoluted subplots, and instead explored the relationship between Duvall and Franco in greater depth, “Wild Horses” might've been an intriguing story about the struggles of a family stuck in its ways, trying to move forward. 

  • Director: Robert Duvall
  • Genre: Drama
  • Runtime: 102 minutes
  • Rating: 4/10 Cowboy Hats