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Robert Duvall

We catch up with one of our all-time favorites as he goes south of the border in Bill Wittliff’s A Night in Old Mexico.

By Cowboys & Indians contributor, Joe Leydon

Robert Duvall 1

Photo provided by Cowboys & Indians.

Think of it as a labor of love that took an exceptionally long time to gestate.
At some point before the 1988 production of Lonesome Dove — both men admit they’re a bit fuzzy when it comes to recalling the precise date — Oscar-winning actor Robert Duvall and producer-screenwriter Bill Wittliff discussed the possibility of filming A Night in Old Mexico, Wittliff’s original script about an aging Texas rancher who opts to enjoy one last blast south of the border.

The subject popped up again during a conversation they had shortly after the 1989 telecast of Lonesome Dove was a ratings smash. Looking back, Duvall says he liked the script — a lot — but thought it was “too soon” for him to play a character he viewed as “a descendant, in spirit, of the guys in Lonesome Dove.” (Besides, how was he going to top the role he’s called his Hamlet?) So Wittliff agreed that he and Duvall should wait “a little while” before collaborating again.

That “little while” stretched into 25 years.

This past March, at long last after several false starts, Duvall and Wittliff — along with director Emilio Aragón and Colombian costar Angie Cepeda — were finally able to present the world premiere of A Night in Old Mexico at the SXSW film festival in Austin, Texas. Audiences greeted it with full-throated roars of approval.

Making the absolute most of a vividly written role that fits him like a well-worn pair of boots, Duvall moseys through the movie at a deliberate but determined gait as Red, an irascible old coot who’s seriously peeved because the bank has seized his property and plans to divide it into “ranchettes.” Indeed, when we first meet him, Red is so irritated by what he sees as God’s indifference to his predicament that he threatens to play Russian roulette with the Almighty. (Fortunately, Red is aiming the gun at a wall, not his head, when he fires a live round.)

His agitation only increases when he takes his first look at the trailer park where he’s supposed to spend his twilight years. As far as he’s concerned, that simply won’t be an option: “I ain’t livin’ in no damn tin can.” And don’t even try to suggest that he check in to a nursing home. “I’m more scared of somebody spoon-feeding me oatmeal than anything else in this world,” Red rages.

So Red more or less takes his cue from the Dylan Thomas poem quoted during the opening credits and decides he won’t go gentle into that good night. Instead, he takes the wheel of his Cadillac, puts the pedal to the metal, and heads to Mexico for what likely will be a final vacation.

Fortunately, Red does not have to make the journey alone. Gally (Jeremy Irvine of War Horse), the early twentysomething offspring of Red’s long-estranged son, shows up to pay an unannounced visit to the grandfather he’s never known. He arrives just in time to accompany Red on his road trip and to help the old man maneuver through a loose-knit story line — involving hit men, stolen money, and a lovely young singer named Patty Wafers (Angie Cepeda) — that owes more to Elmore Leonard than Larry McMurtry.

Filmed primarily in and around the border town of Brownsville, Texas, A Night in Old Mexico offers Duvall a welcome opportunity to tear into a juicy lead role like a famished ranch hand devouring a heaping helping of chicken-fried steak. But there’s more than just crowd-pleasing excess to his richly amusing, Oscar-worthy performance. Duvall is just as effective, and arguably more endearing, during those quieter moments when Red suggests regrets, behaves honorably, and, when dealing with ladies of all ages, conveys courtliness.

In short, A Night in Old Mexico — which receives a limited theater and video-on-demand release beginning in May — showcases Duvall’s finest performance in his best film since Get Low, the 2010 indie drama in which the acclaimed actor memorably plays Felix Bush, a Depression era hermit who rejoins society only to plan his own funeral. It was shortly before the release of Get Low that Duvall last sat down for an extended chat with Cowboys & Indians. So when we met him again at the SXSW film festival, two days before the launch of A Night in Old Mexico, we thought we’d do some catching up before we settled down to the topic at hand.

To read the full interview, visit http://www.cowboysindians.com.