You have to admire what Robert Duvall was going for with Wild Horses. A successful but supremely bigoted rancher (Duvall) on the Texas border has to deal with the fact that one of his sons is gay. That’s not the main thrust of the plot, but it’s certainly the main progression for the character. Trouble is, Duvall, who wrote, directed, and starred, falls into a couple of storytelling traps that hold the whole movie back from being very much of anything.
One, there’s an old writing adage that goes, “Show don’t tell.” It’s more interesting if we see action rather than hear about it, if characters do things that betray their opinions rather than only voice those opinions. Wild Horses does precious little of this, with most sets serving as little more than dioramas for idle talk. There are a couple quality scenes of action, namely one where the gay son (played by James Franco) explains what his life is like to his two older brothers, at least one of whom has previously shared his father’s bigoted views. The three get into a fight with some bar patrons who disapprove, and it’s a great bonding moment that parallels the sort of interaction Franco’s character would like to have with his father.
The other problem is that there are a lot of extraneous scenes and plot lines. The story Duvall is working on here feels like it would be happier in a novel, where he could paint the picture of an entire town and several of its residents. Wild Horses never lets us really understand its characters beyond a surface level, and a lot of that has to do with scenes and plot points that only pertain to a couple members of a rather large cast. It leads to a problem of motivation. For example, there’s a scene where the Duvall character is reading his new will for his sons (I won’t say more than that for sake of spoilers) and they’re furious at its contents – but I couldn’t figure out why they had such a hostile reaction.
Duvall is the only credited writer on this movie (IMDb says Michael Shell helped with the story, but in the film’s credits it calls the movie “Written and Directed by Robert Duvall”), and while I’m hesitant to be too down on his work, it does feel like he didn’t get enough help on this one; most of the issues, both those above and some others, can be attributed to shortcomings in the writing, direction, or both.
I love the idea of taking on homophobia through the lens of a small town Texas businessman, particularly seeing it through the lense of an old bigot rather than through the eye of the gay men themselves, as with Brokeback Mountain, but Wild Horses isn’t quite the groundbreaking film it’s clearly intended to be.