This contemporary Western might as well be set in the Twilight Zone.
Reworking elements from his 1989 gangster saga “Parinda” in a contemporary English-language western, Bollywood director Vidhu Vinod Chopra makes a rocky crossover — to put it mildly — in “Broken Horses.” This overwrought tale of two orphaned brothers and their violent hometown reunion fails to convince on several crucial levels, including plotting and dialogue. Despite name cast members and ace work from regular Clint Eastwood d.p. Tom Stern, the audience for this curio exists mainly in the Twilight Zone, which is where the movie often seems to be set.
Pic opens “somewhere near the Mexican border, 15 years ago,” as a sheriff (Thomas Jane) practices at the shooting range. His older son, Buddy (played as a boy by Henry Shotwell, who has a grating, earnest formality), warns him that they’re going to be late for his younger brother’s violin solo. “Pop, we’re gonna miss Jakey’s recital,” he says.
“Nah, we’ve got plenty of time,” Dad replies — at which point he’s immediately shot through the head by an assassin the movie never bothers to show.
The impressionable Buddy is quickly co-opted by the local crime kingpin, Julius Hench (a drawling Vincent D’Onofrio), who takes advantage of the boy’s desire for revenge and trains him to be a hit man. The job enables him to provide for his younger brother.
Flash forward to adulthood and New York, where Jakey (Anton Yelchin), now a pescetarian hipster, auditions for a philharmonic job and prepares to marry Vittoria (Maria Valverde). He hasn’t been home in eight years, but he’s persuaded to return to see Buddy’s wedding present. The older sibling, whom we’re meant to understand is slow-witted, has made good on his childhood promise to build Jakey a lakeside ranch, complete with a white stallion and a welcome sign (“JAKEY’S RANCH”) that would be perfect for a 6-year-old. Jakey soon learns that Julius, fearful of losing his most-loved hit man to retirement, is trying to have him killed.
Other absurdities abound. Jakey’s former music teacher (Sean Patrick Flanery), now legless, wheels around his home in what appears to be a motorized desk chair and uses a flaming barrel for heat. Jakey, after joining Julius’ gang, convinces him that he’ll pose as a writer for an NYU journal in order to score an interview with Julius’ nemesis, a politically ambitious Mexican gun runner named Mario Garza (Jordi Caballero). This ploy is rendered only marginally less ludicrous when (spoiler alert) it’s made clear that Mario and Jakey are in cahoots. Even so, the scene in which Julius, at his movie-theater hideout, tries to sniff out the mole in his gang is missing a crucial closeup that would have clarified the double-cross.
Many of the devices used are simply cloying. With borderline-offensive mugging, Marquette is made to convey Buddy’s simplemindedness with grammatical errors (“he’s my bestest friend”) and a stammer. (A childlike nature doesn’t prevent him from flying into fits of violent range; at one point we see him beat a man to death.) Apparently, Jakey always carries a baggie filled with $6 that his brother gave him when they were young.
Some of Chopra’s formal choices likewise court bad laughs. A tense, “Goodfellas”-style dolly zoom as Jakey seeks Julius’ permission to accompany Buddy to Mexico is rendered comical when Chopra cuts to the reverse shot — another dolly zoom. In one sequence, the movie crosscuts between a mass hit and oranges being juiced. In a bit of bombast near the end, we watch in long shot as the white horse, which has sauntered into the ranch house, goes running out after gunshots are fired.
The heightened melodrama might play more effectively if “Broken Horses” were stylized at a consistent level, but the proportions are way off, lurching from gritty realism to the near-surreal with little preparation. At a few points, it’s hard not to wonder whether Chopra’s cast and collaborators — who include “creative consultant” Walter Murch — spoke up on issues of plausibility.
Tech-wise, the redoubtable Stern does his usual classy work. (There’s one particularly fine moment when D’Onofrio’s face is cast in shadow by the film reels in the hideout’s projection booth.) The finale’s explosion special effects, however, look glaringly fake.