Most domestic dramas fall into two types: The profound kind tends to be confrontational and even loud, where the true characters of the participants are forged in an intense furnace of conflict, and big emotions get played out for everyone to see. The gentle kind has conflict, too, but the tension is mostly a trigger for the characters to become reflective and self-analytical; the emotions are reserved and internalized, giving the film a quiet sweetness.
Neither type is inherently easier to pull off than the other, each coming with its own set of pitfalls. Profundity often can be lost amid obnoxious shouting or even hysterical melodrama; gentleness isn't the most visual of attributes, requiring considerable sleight-of-hand just to keep the audience's interest from waning. More than other genres, a drama's power usually boils down to the strength of the story and the honesty of the acting--and the style of presentation frequently can coast on these elements.
Such is the case with A Family Thing. There's not a lot of complexity to the plot or emotions, but the performances--by Robert Duvall and Irma P. Hall in particular--elevate the movie to a surprisingly high level. The film may be artless, but its sincerity makes up for its cinematic shortcomings.
The screenplay jumps immediately into the heart of the narrative. Earl (Duvall), a redneck from Arkansas, learns upon his mother's death that the woman he knew was not his biological mother. Rather, he was the offspring of his white father and the family's black maid, who died in childbirth. Earl is confused and angered by this discovery, but sets out to find his older half brother Ray (James Earl Jones), a cop in Chicago. Their first meeting is stilted, even hostile, but when Earl's truck is stolen, he ends up as a house guest of Ray, his adult son (Michael Beach), and his Aunt T. (Hall).
Screenwriters Billy Bob Thornton and Tom Epperson, who dealt with an illicit racial romance in the film One False Move, could have developed the story in any number of directions, but they keep it close to a well-traveled path. There's a safeness to A Family Thing that's contrary to the themes that seem to be at its core. It avoids the profound type of domestic drama, opting instead for a light sprinkling of comedy to soften--and perhaps humanize--the serious issues of race. The physical encounters are played more for laughs than to shock. In fact, the major confrontation between Earl and Ray is noticeable for the immaturity in which it originates; the men seem silly, like two schoolboys fighting over who gets to be captain of the kickball team rather than adults working out complex problems.
The reason they seem childish is part of the method, and the message, of the movie. Earl and Ray both grew up as only children; they've had to wait until their 50s to exorcise their sibling rivalries and bond as brothers. In this way, issues of race and miscegenation aren't important in themselves; they merely act as catalysts for the growth of the relationship between Ray and Earl.
The film's dialogue surpasses its plotting. When the screenplay concerns itself with the way Earl relates to Ray, Aunt T., and others--even when he's jiggering up his relationship with them--you get caught up in the story. But for about half the time when Earl and Ray share no scenes, the movie feels more like a Springsteen video.
Earl is a quintessential Duvall character. Shuffling around in blue jeans, cowboy hat, and short-sleeve shirts with mother-of-pearl snaps, he's full of pain and bewilderment. Earl has been forced into self-reflection--for the first time, it seems. He's a fish out of water in two respects: physically--since most of the film's action takes place in Chicago--and emotionally. He's not at ease in either realm, and his sense of isolation forces you to sympathize with him even when his bigotry peeks through.
Robert Duvall has already proven that he is perfectly at home with small character parts. His presence in a movie lends an air of honest dignity to even the most transparently sentimental (or downright awful) film fare. Duvall's range seems limitless; you can see fragments of the whole American experience on every line of his face, from his octogenarian Cuban in Wrestling Ernest Hemingway to his aging lothario in Something to Talk About. Who else routinely gives so many near-faceless characters (the editor in The Paper, the cop in Falling Down) full lives of their own? Duvall's a walking back-story to every character he portrays: He exudes conviction and purpose whenever he's on the screen.
Duvall's fluid acting, developed in great performances over a 30-year career, has elevated him to an odd plateau: He has become a mythic cliche. It's difficult not to admire his work, and it's in that constant admiration that we tend to forget just how fantastic an actor he is. It's not that Duvall can do no wrong (see The Scarlet Letter); it's that his complete immersion in his roles, to the apparent suppression of his very ego, is so convincing that you can accept him in almost any story. If the movie business were ever thinking of adopting anything resembling a Good Housekeeping seal of approval, Duvall's name in the credit would come close.
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James Earl Jones is an imposing actor, both in body and personality, but he's cast as a dull Everyman here, and that's the wrong character for him. Like Sean Connery, he's better at larger-than-life roles--generals (The Hunt for Red October), legendary writers (Field of Dreams), or villains (the voice of Darth Vader). He seems constrained by the cramped quarters of Ray's apartment; you almost expect him to burst out of the film's frame and consume the living room in a single gulp. His performance, though consummately acted, is not entirely convincing because Jones seems vaguely out of place.
The film's best performance, though, comes from the unexpected turn by Irma P. Hall. Although Hall is only 60, she persuasively plays the blind, 88-year-old Aunt T., a woman of so forceful a personality that everyone reflexively treats her with a mix of fear, awe, and deference. Aunt T. is easily the humane conscience of the film, and as close as it comes to a narrator. Via a series of flashbacks (which, with their sepia-toned images, blur distinctions of skin color), Aunt T. provides the mechanism through which Earl and Ray undergo their respective catharses and come to a deeper emotional understanding of one another.
There's probably nothing more American than glimpsing back at your past. In having Aunt T. guide us through one such personal history, touching as it does on so many lives, you realize that the movie is as concerned with the human condition in general as it is with the specifics of its story. In that universality, A Family Thing speaks its truths with simplicity and kindness. It's enough to renew one's faith in his fellow man.
A Family Thing. United Artists. Robert Duvall, James Earl Jones, Irma P. Hall. Written by Billy Bob Thornton and Tom Epperson. Directed by Richard Pearce. Now showing.