Duvall is cast as Earl Pilcher Jr., an ordinary fellow of 60 or so who has lived all his life in the same small Arkansas town. By all appearances, he's a fair and friendly man, though he doesn't suffer fools gladly. (Witness the way he deals with a rude customer at his equipment-rental store.) When he gets word that his ailing mother has taken a turn for the worse, he closes his store and drives over to his house -- the same house, you realize without having to be told, that he's lived in all of his life.
Earl takes his place at his mother's bedside and tries to cheer her up. She appreciates the effort, but she knows the end is near. She isn't sad -- she figures she's had a good enough life -- but it's clear that something is on her mind. Only she doesn't live long enough to talk about it. No big dramatic moment -- she simply sighs, and drifts away. Earl pauses, thunderstruck. Then, slowly, he leans over and whispers his farewell into her ear.
Later, Earl is given a letter his mother wrote shortly before her death. And in the letter, he finds, much to his astonishment, that she wasn't his mother after all.
Stunned by what he's read, Earl walks -- almost staggers, really -- to the back of his store, where his elderly father is working. And he tells the old man what he has read. About how, years ago, his father impregnated a black maid who had been working for the family. How the maid died during childbirth. How his mother demanded that they raise the child as their son. How that child grew up to be Earl Pilcher Jr.
Earl doesn't want to believe what he's read. But even as he tries to get his father to tell him that it's not true, that the letter represents nothing but a senile old woman's hallucination, he stops short. Because he knows, instinctively, that it is true. And then all the rage and the pain and the fear spill out of him in the same wild rush of emotion.
And Robert Duvall makes you believe all of it without even having to raise his voice.
A Family Thing could have ended right here, and most people would feel that they'd been amply repaid for the price of admission. Indeed, when I saw it, there was part of me that actually hoped the movie would end at this point, since I couldn't see how anything that followed could be anything but a letdown.
As it turns out, director Richard Pearce and screenwriters Billy Bob Thornton and Tom Epperson have a lot more story to tell, and some very fine actors to join Duvall in the telling of it. And while nothing that happens in the next 90 or so minutes ever really matches the intensity or impact of the opening, A Family Thing as a whole is one of the most amusing and satisfying entertainments around right now. Some of it is corny, some of it is contrived. But a great deal more of it is hugely enjoyable, thanks to Duvall, James Earl Jones and a Texas-born actress you've probably never heard of before, but will be hearing a lot about in the weeks and months ahead. The lady is named Irma P. Hall, and she is terrific. She even manages to steal scenes from Duvall and Jones, a crime that can only be described as grand larceny.
Jones is cast, perfectly, as Ray Murdoch, a Chicago police officer who just happens to be the first-born son of Earl's real mother. Earl learns about Ray in the letter from the woman who raised him as her own, the woman whose last wish was that Earl seek out Ray and get to know him. Earl is considerably less than overjoyed by the prospect of such a "family reunion." For one thing, Earl is, to put it politely, less than enlightened when it comes to racial matters. (He's not unfamiliar with the "N-word.") For another thing, it's asking a lot for him to suddenly accept that everything he always believed about his family -- and about his own identity -- is a lie. It's asking a lot more, maybe too much, to accept the idea of an African-American half-brother.
For his part, Ray doesn't have any trouble accepting the idea of a half-Caucasian brother. He's always known about Earl. And he's always known that his mother died while giving birth to the offspring sired by Earl Sr.
So when Earl reluctantly drives to Chicago and tracks Ray down for a face-to-face meeting, it's Ray, not Earl, who's the most openly hostile. And Ray makes no apologies for his brusqueness. After all, Earl has spent the last 60 years loving, and being loved by, his parents; Ray has spent the same time hating Earl Sr., and resenting Earl Jr. All things considered, Ray would be happy if Earl simply climbed back into his pickup truck and drove straight back to Arkansas. Truth to tell, that would suit Earl just fine, too.
And that's when A Family Thing reaches another point at which the people who made it and the people watching it consider the same burning question: where do we go from here?
It requires a fair amount of heavy lifting for the filmmakers to keep these bound-by-blood strangers together. First, Earl has to get beaten by street thugs, who steal his truck. And then, after a brief period of convalescence at Ray's cramped but comfortable home, Earl has to go on a bender, just to give the two men space enough to realize they would like to spend more time together. Here and elsewhere in A Family Thing, the grinding of plot mechanics is a shade too obvious. But think of it as a tradeoff: this is what you have to put up with to remain in the company of some fascinating characters.
It has been much too long since Jones had a movie role as substantial as Ray Murdoch, a part that allows him to fill the screen with the full force of his booming, bearish charisma. This time, the boom is more of a purr, occasionally slowed down with a slight stammer. (A nice touch: the stutter, wisely underplayed, gives the physically intimidating Jones an engaging touch of vulnerability.) But the full force of Ray's painfully conflicted feelings -- resentment, anger, compassion, sorrow -- comes through in an affectingly vivid yet beautifully restrained performance.
To watch Earl and Ray slowly evolve from wary antagonism to budding friendship is to watch two marvelous actors infuse a potentially hokey contrivance with a resounding emotional truth. Yes, you know right from the start that these two characters will somehow manage to reach across the barriers that separate them. But Jones and Duvall are such unfailingly honest actors that they fully persuade you that it's an uphill struggle for these guys to reach common ground.
Then there's Irma P. Hall. As Aunt T., the blind octogenarian who reared Ray and now lives in his house, Hall is richly amusing and exuberantly sassy in a role that calls for her to serve as sounding board, peacemaker and blunt-spoken sage all at once. To be sure, the role may be a clich, but Hall, a Beaumont native who once operated the Dallas Minority Repertory Theatre, is vigorously cantankerous enough, and bountifully maternal enough, to turn the clich into a fully rounded, flesh-and-blood human being. When she talks, others can't help but listen.
As the closing credits begin, Pearce cuts away from Duvall and Jones to show Aunt T. once again tapping her way down the street toward the grocery store. For a while, it seems as though Pearce is setting us up for some final gag, or an epiphany of some sort. But then it becomes clear that he simply wants to spend a little more time with this character. So do we. In fact, it would be great to see all these characters again, to see how Earl's family responds to the news about his half-brother. If Duvall, Jones and Hall are willing to make a sequel, I'm more than willing to see it.
A Family Thing. Directed by Richard Pearce. With James Earl Jones and Robert Duvall. Rated PG-13. 109 minutes.