Twenty-five years ago, long before the current renaissance of serious movie stars working in television, Robert Duvall broke the mold by taking the part of Gus McCrae in the four-part miniseries Lonesome Dove, a Western based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Texas literary legend Larry McMurtry. Working off a script by Austin-based writer Bill Wittliff, Duvall played McCrae as an aging imp and Id, a former Texas Ranger with a taste for women, booze and gambling who takes off for Montana on a whim and a whiff of adventure. It was an iconic performance, the kind that defines an actor’s career—which is saying something when you consider that Duvall had already played Boo Radley in To Kill a Mockingbird, Tom Hagen in The Godfather, and Col. Kilgore in Apocalypse Now.
Right about the time shooting wrapped on Lonesome Dove, Wittliff came to Duvall with another script he’d been working on, this one about an aging rancher inmodern-day Texas named Red Bovie—an heir to McCrae’s devil-may-care frontier spirit—who, after losing his family ranch to developers, drives down to Mexico for a night of debauchery in defiance of his age, his poverty, and a rapidly homogenizing America in which he no longer feels at home. Duvall wanted the part but said he needed to age first to make it work, so the project was put off. A quarter-century and dozens of rumored collaborators later—at one point Dennis Hopper was slated to direct—A Night in Old Mexico finally had its premiere at this year’s SXSW festival in Austin, and goes into limited national release in May. Now 83 and as close to Hollywood royalty as one can get, Duvall has yet another defining moment to call his own, this one a late-career master class in the high art of human refusal.
Some movies are questions, some are advertisements, some are labyrinths and some are declarations. A Night in Old Mexico is a declaration all the way. From its opening epigraph—Dylan Thomas’ famous admonition that “Old age should burn and rave at close of day”—to the shots of Bovie peeling defiantly out of a retirement village in a Cadillac and tracking down a hit man to get his stolen money back (the money he’ll use to keep himself out of that retirement home, where death lingers around every corner), the film has a message to pound into viewers’ heads: Life is for the living, no matter how old you are.
I remember years ago reading a short story by Gabriel Garcia Márquez in which the author argues that there is only one dichotomy of any real use to human beings: death and life. All others (good/evil, beautiful/ugly, love/hate) are just conjecture. Life wants to continue; it wants more life. Which is essentially the story of Red Bovie. Standing on the precipice of death, impoverished, alone, without roots or direction, the old man shrugs off the safety of pleasant company and a good place to wait out his final days and goes off in search of vitality—his way of raging against the dying of the light. He wants singing and dancing and women. So off he goes to Mexico, taking his estranged, stiff-shirted Yankee grandson with him—a grandson who wears an ersatz cowboy hat purchased in a Texas airport as a metaphorical reminder to Red and to us that risking a life is better than living one filled with false experiences.
The film’s action sequences may seem ridiculous (an old man and a green city kid get the jump on not one but two professional killers) and its May-September romance between Red and a beautiful Mexican singer/stripper may feel forced, but the specifics of the action in a movie like A Night in Old Mexico are less important than the fact that actions are taken. Engagement with life is all that matters. In fact, the real problem with the movie may be that it doesn’t go far enough. A Night in Old Mexico could have used more absurdity, more violence and danger. Director Emilio Aragón plays it safe with Wittliff’s script, turning it into a knee-slapping fable with a carpe diem moral, but a story about humanity’s unceasing, unquenchable thirst for life, especially in its dying days, should pulsate with manic energy, with madness and chaos, with desperate passion and life-affirming risk. To quote another iconic poem, the saddest words of tongue and pen must truly be “It might have been,” because one can only imagine what kind of trouble a truly unhinged soul like Dennis Hopper could have stirred up with the story of a man like Red Bovie, employing an actor as deft and daring and death-defying as Robert Duvall.