Tonally dissonant and narratively disjointed, “Wild Horses” plays like a patchwork quilt of scenes excerpted from a much longer movie, or maybe even a miniseries. Writer-director Robert Duvall’s ambitious indie feature (his first filmmaking effort since 2002’s “Assassination Tango”) attempts to entwine two potentially interesting tales — the reopening of a missing-persons case by a female Texas Ranger, and the reunion of an aged rancher and his long-estranged son — but the mix never jells, and neither storyline is especially compelling. The good news is, Duvall the filmmaker is well served by Duvall the star, and his fine, fiery performance might help lasso a few viewers when “Wild Horses” moseys on over to homescreen pastures.
Duvall plays Scott Briggs, a seventysomething, set-in-his-ways Texas rancher who can still ride hard (although he needs some help to mount his horse) and shoot straight (especially when he encounters trespassers on his property). Despite his apparent heartiness, however, Briggs realizes it’s well past time for him to get his affairs in order. So he sets about drawing up a will, and summons home the black-sheep gay son (James Franco) he chased off — at gunpoint — 15 years earlier.
Dad banished his errant offspring after catching him in flagrante delicto with a young ranch hand who mysteriously disappeared that same evening. By sheer coincidence — well, OK, through scriptwriting contrivance — a dutiful Texas Ranger (Luciana Duvall, Robert’s real-life wife) reopens the cold case of that missing ranch hand just as the prodigal son returns home. Scott, it should be noted, is upset by the ranger’s inconvenient curiosity.
As “Wild Horses” proceeds at an uncomfortably bumpy pace, with abrupt and arbitrary shifts from rowdy humor to familial faceoffs to murder mystery, Duvall drops a few more subplots into the simmering pot — some drug dealing here, an acknowledgement of paternity there — and occasionally remembers to give co-star Josh Hartnett (cast as one of Franco’s straight siblings) something to do. But the movie — which also features the most listless car chase in recent memory — never develops much in the way of narrative momentum. Indeed, the seeming randomness of the scene juxtapositions often suggests that Duvall and company simply made things up as they went along during filming.
Among the supporting players, only Franco manages to keep from being completely overshadowed in scenes opposite Duvall. Lenser Barry Markowitz does a reasonably convincing job of making Utah pass for Texas.