Robert Duvall’s Wild Horses consists mainly of a series of conversations, some stiff and unconvincing, that never quite coalesce into a plausible story, but those exchanges become magnetic whenever Adriana Barraza is on screen, especially in a climactic scene that she and Duvall build toward a wrenching emotional crescendo. And while the nonprofessional actors intended to add authentic local color sometimes freeze the action in its tracks with wooden line readings, Duvall distills the flavor of rural West Texas in scenes like the gentle taming of an unbroken horse, a midday bonding between brothers at a dark, no-frills bar, and a backyard barbecue at which a band plays “Cielito Lindo” while a bearded cook works a grill made of a halved oilcan.
Barraza’s character jump-starts the main plot by asking Texas Ranger Sam Payne (Luciana Duvall) to investigate the disappearance of her son, Jamie, who’s been missing for 15 years—ever since homophobic rancher Scott Briggs (Duvall) stumbled upon him making out with Scott’s favorite son, Ben (James Franco), in the barn and drove the boys off at gunpoint. The rest of the drama mainly revolves around the Briggs family, including the crumbling marriage one son, KC (Josh Hartnett), is trying to salvage; Ben’s temporary return, his first time back home since the catastrophe in the barn; and the surprise Scott springs on his family about Maria Gonzales (Angie Cepeda), a gorgeous young woman who grew up on the ranch and lives there still, running the household for Scott. But all that intrigue, and most of the film’s many earnest and expository conversations, feel like tangents. The real theme of Wild Horses is the slide from power of the white patriarchs who used to dominate movies like this, a passing of the torch that Duvall portrays as a much-needed and healthy change.
Duvall plays a variation on all the macho men he’s portrayed over the years, only with a crucial difference. Huffing and puffing after minor exertions, his shirts stretched tight across a heavy paunch, Scott is on his last legs and knows it. More importantly, he’s lost his authority as well as his vigor, as he and his cohort cede their ground to a much more diverse and broadminded generation. In what is, one senses, the greatest challenge of his life, Scott is facing up to the damage caused by the homophobia and class and race divisions he once took for granted. And he’s being held to account not only by the gay and Mexican members of his own household, but by “a lady Ranger,” as he puts it.
The film’s attitude toward Sam is respectful to the point of reverence. In many ways, the role Duvall wrote for his Argentinian wife is the part that would have been his in the old days: strong and stoic, righteously self-confident, always unflappable. But her gender and ethnicity give Sam important strengths that Duvall’s characters did not have access to. A loving mother and a respectful public servant, as fluent in Spanish as she is in English, Sam treats everyone she talks to with the same quiet courtesy. In return, most of the people she encounters treat her with similar respect and consideration, seeing her more as a trusted sister than a feared enforcer. Unfortunately, Duvall can’t resist serving up the occasional slice of cheesecake, putting Sam in front of a mirror in her undies as the camera runs up and down her taut body, or having her overpower a guard, in a ludicrous move, by tying her blouse seductively around her midriff in order to lure him into an alley before knocking him out with a chokehold. Those awkward expressions of Duvall’s evident admiration for his wife are typical of this film, in which so much seems touchingly sincere but clumsily expressed.