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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Robert Duvall returns to directing with the clumsy Texas soap opera Wild Horses

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What a shambles. Robert Duvall, eminent character actor of the Hackman-Caan generation of difficult big-screen guys, returns to the director’s chair with Wild Horses, a dawdling and sometimes damn near unintelligible ensemble piece set in a Texas border town. Shot by Barry Markowitz—cinematographer of Crazy Heart and All The Pretty Horses and all-around specialist in movies where feelings are kept hidden under cowboy hats—it looks and moves like a daytime soap opera, minus the emotional highs, framed into dusty widescreen.

Duvall stars as Scott Briggs, a rancher who is introduced with back-to-back scenes that find him chasing his gay son off the family property with a gun and a Bible and instructing illegal migrants to stay out of said property and/or the state of Texas. In declining health, Briggs decides to get his will in order, and invites back the aforementioned gay son, Ben (James Franco), now long estranged, to slowly reveal family secrets and share clumsily written moments of reconciliation. Meanwhile, a Texas Ranger (Luciana Duvall, terrible) investigates an unsolved disappearance related to the Briggs clan. For unclear reasons, local drug dealers are also involved.

Narrative lines have never been a strong suit for Duvall, whose previous three features were character-study passion projects that sustained interest on the strength of the writer-director’s own investment in the material. As per usual, Duvall packs the cast with non-professional actors, but in lieu of the unpredictable authenticity of earlier works like Angelo My Love and The Apostle—the former set within a Romany community in New York City, the latter an accomplished and complicated portrait of Southern Pentecostals—all this plotty mess gets out of the arrangement is bad acting.

Like a lot of American actors-turned-directors, Duvall seems reluctant to give direction to anyone other than himself. (It’s anyone’s guess what Josh Hartnett, cast as the middle child of the Briggs family, is supposed to be doing.) And though his affection for the rowdy, macho setting—at its clearest in the scene where Ben gets drunk with his older brothers—occasionally shines through, most of Wild Horses is taken up by inconsequential revelations (sorely lacking the necessary zoom and synth swell) and the most amateurish cold-case procedural imaginable. Duvall has always given the impression that he directs movies for himself; perhaps these are intended to be nap breaks.