A Night in Old Mexico (2013)
Editor’s Note: A Night in Old Mexico is now open in limited release and on VOD
“Do not go gentle into that good night”. Dylan Thomas’ oversaturated verse is an obvious epigraph for A Night in Old Mexico, a movie for which obvious aspects will do when awkward oddities will not. It’s a tonally troubled film, one where wild misfires might easily be mistaken for invigorating additions to the formula at its heart. Perhaps that’s the appeal for Robert Duvall, who hijacks the film and makes it his vehicle; the opening line, of course, carries weight for the octogenarian actor, who here takes to heart Thomas’ advice to “rage, rage against the dying of the light”. But for all the conviction with which he does so, it’s an effort invariably suffocated by the convention that surrounds it.
f his crotchety register makes Gran Torino’s equally embittered lead seem a bastion of nuance by comparison, Duvall as least has the calibre to corral some semblance of depth…
Garnering his first credit since 2000’s The Perfect Storm, William D. Wittliff contributes a script that might generously be described as rusty. He casts his hero in a mould reserved for westerns redolent of yore and reluctantly aware of its antiquity. A cantankerous old coot this erstwhile rancher Red is, all gruff rebuttals and half-coughed cackles as he’s introduced decrying the decision—on whose part we’re never entirely sure—to divvy his land up into “ranchettes”. If his crotchety register makes Gran Torino’s equally embittered lead seem a bastion of nuance by comparison, Duvall as least has the calibre to corral some semblance of depth as the old-timer shuffles off, revolver in hand, into his barn to dim the lights himself.
But where Wittliff and director Emilio Aragón might mine the moment for drama, they’re mysteriously compelled instead to shoot for comedy as Red cries to the skies for a sign: “any sign will do”. We’re short only a comical ricochet sound as he shoots through the door right past the ear of a young man outside who—lo and behold!—happens to be the grandson he never met. The boy’s elusive answers to the reasons for his visit set the scene for a hopelessly hammy late-stage revelation, while Red rumbles on, uncaring as ever. The script’s subsequent contrivances to band them together for an action-packed road movie are so inexplicable that, appropriately, it never makes any real effort to explain.
Aragón moves haphazardly from one scene to the next, cutting between the uneasy comedy in the car and a peripheral plot’s string of antagonists offing each other with almost no consequence at all.
Much as the youngster—played by Jeremy Irvine, who takes the material a good deal more seriously than Duvall, and has a tougher time for it—begs his grandfather to slow down despite the desert scenery’s measured crawl past the windows, so too do we fret for the film’s speed in spite of how little it really progresses. Aragón moves haphazardly from one scene to the next, cutting between the uneasy comedy in the car and a peripheral plot’s string of antagonists offing each other with almost no consequence at all. By the time Angie Cepeda’s dancer joins the fray, striking up a relationship with Red that’s equally queasy and contrived, it’s impossible to be at all invested on anything going on onscreen.
It’s a film at once beneath Duvall and buoyed by him; it’s his ability to lend the comedy some trace of success that allows it to do him the disservice of scatological sounds. As he tosses himself gamely into the silliest aspects of the script, howling at the spirit of his mother like some low-rent Mickey Sabbath, you see a man raging with all his might against the dying of the light. But one needn’t be so boisterous to not go gently, and Duvall’s career doesn’t want for far better latter-year efforts. “I ain’t done yet,” he scowls here as the movie winds to a close, “I got a few places to go”. We can only hope so. It’s better places than here that he belongs.
A Night in Old Mexico is a film at once beneath Duvall and buoyed by him.