Westerns, and Robert Duvall films, are in short supply these days. So I was all to eager to dive into Wild Horses, a western film that Duvall wrote, directed, produced, and starred in with James Franco, Josh Hartnett, and Duvall’s real-life wife, Luciana Duvall. What I found was a film that moves as fast as the eighty-four-year-old Duvall, but has some nuggets of wisdom from a lifetime of experience rolled into the mix.
In a shadowy prologue that hides some of the truths of the film in mystery, Scott Briggs (Duvall) chases his son, Ben (James Franco), and a ranch hand off his property when he finds them in a homosexual relationship. Fifteen years later, Ben reluctantly returns to the ranch, at the same time that a U.S. Marshal (Luciana Duvall) shows up investigating the disappearance of the ranch hand. Two stories diverge and converge throughout the film: can the Briggs family relationships be mended, and what happened to that ranch hand?
Duvall the director/writer seems intent on having us understand that sometimes, fathers get it wrong, and that fathers are microcosms of the decision-making in society. Duvall’s Briggs is a Bible-thumper (I think it might actually be a category in Duvall’s mind), akin to the preacher he played in The Apostle. “The Bible says it, and I believe it,” could actually come out of Briggs’ mouth in a way that everything else would fade away. So, Ben is wrong, and that’s all there is to it; because Ben is wrong, Scott can’t love him.
The Parable of the Prodigal Son came to mind as I watched the film, because Hartnett’s son is the “good one,” the elder one who stays home, while Franco’s Ben is the one who runs away. But the story is inverted because it’s actually the father, Scott, who chases Ben away, and it’s the father who needs to ask for forgiveness, to own his sins, and make amends. There’s a bit of ‘end of life’ restitution making, akin to someone who ‘gets’ why they’re in Alcoholics Anonymous for the first time. And the family dynamics are way more interesting than the ‘mystery’ we’re chasing on the other side of script.
Overall, the film is intriguing, but nearly too slow to be maintained. Duvall certainly has some things he’s reflecting on as he gets older, and Wild Horses is no different. Just don’t expect to have everything cleaned up in a nice package for you: life is messy, and wild horses are meant to run free.