“Wild Horses” is bad in so many ways that it is difficult to know where to begin.
Since his film debut as Boo Radley in 1962’s “To Kill a Mockingbird,” Robert Duvall has done fine work in supporting roles in such films as Arthur Penn’s “The Chase,” Francis Ford Coppola’s “The Godfather,” and Sam Peckinpah’s “The Killer Elite.” He has also done well in several leading roles, the most notable being the outstanding “Tender Mercies.” But too much of his work has been dull, playing stock characters in mediocre pictures or doing the Duvall shtick in ambitious flops, from 1979’s “The Great Santini” to 2014’s “The Judge.”
An actor is at the mercy of so many people and things that it is the rare one who enjoys a consistent career. But a director is different. If he has any control at all over his work, there is no one to blame but himself for a bad picture, especially if he is also the screenwriter. Duvall has written all four of the features he has directed, so he has no excuse for their story content. He also stars in all of them, and the absence of an authoritarian eye may partially explain the awfulness of his performances, although he should have had the good sense to objectively study the dailies, after which he might have reconsidered some of his acting choices. Perhaps the worst thing about his latest directorial effort, “Wild Horses,” is that he is giving the same performance as he did in last year’s “The Judge.” Perhaps he thought that story was so ill told that he thought he could do a better job of it without directorial interference.
“Wild Horses” is not simply a bad movie; it is an incomprehensibly bad movie. There are scenes in which the shots don’t even cut. The inconsistent positions of the actors within the frame, from one shot to another, are as jumpy as they were in Jean-Luc Godard’s amateurish debut, 1959’s “Breathless. And as for Vera Farmiga. another holdover from “The Judge,”……..her performance, weird as it is, may have had some merit, but director Duvall not only makes her look much worse than she is, but includes entrance and exit shots that give the impression of a student theatrical.
After the torture of sitting through his previous directorial efforts, from the pretentiously low-key “Angelo My Love” to the overbearing egotism of “The Apostle,” and now this useless mess, it is clear that Duvall simply does not know how to direct a film. He is lazy, sloppy, has no eye, no sense of rhythm, and can hardly maintain a comprehensible narrative line even when the story is as simplistic as “Wild Horses.”
The picture begins with an introductory scene from the past in which Duvall allows a Mexican border jumper to return unmolested to his home across the Rio Grande. From this, the viewer knows that the character’s involvement in the unsolved death of his son’s gay lover must have some extenuating circumstances, because he is at heart a good guy. So when the final denouement is made, there are no surprises, just a stock resolution which, on account of Duvall’s weak narrative skills, is not exactly clear, although we get the gist of what is supposed to have occurred. However, since “The Judge” with its tale of the powerful patriarch whose criminal tracks are being uncovered late in life is so fresh in our minds, the two pictures seem interchangeable, so there is a guilt passed from one picture to the next that further muddles this muddy mess of a movie.