Review by Adam Balz
Posted on 19 December 2007
Source DVD screener
“I’m really glad you’re here. Makes me feel like I am, too.”
Known almost solely for supporting roles, including a guest spot on “Seinfeld” that single-handedly ensured his place in the pantheon of great comedic performers, Philip Baker Hall has remained a reliable source of talent for almost forty years. Yet, for forty years, he has shirked celebrity. Much like other overlooked greats - M. Emmet Walsh, Dylan Baker, Timothy Spall - Hall has taken roles destined for notoriety without ever eliciting much renown. In Secret Honor he was a seething, paranoid Richard Nixon who, bent on avenging his downfall, haunted the screen, alone and furious, for ninety minutes. Twelve years later, he starred as Sydney in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Hard Eight; a strange but generous hitman living in Las Vegas, Sydney becomes a father figure to John, a drifter he meets outside Reno, Nevada. Ironically, as the film reaches its violent climax, we learn that Sydney killed John’s father, and the revelation deepens his motives into something warped and enigmatic, offering us the first real insight into who Sydney really is and complementing an earlier scene in which he helps John and his girlfriend sterilize a crime scene.
But the performance that has remained with me for years is Jimmy Gator in Anderson’s Magnolia. Starring in a character-driven ensemble alongside some of the most recognizable lead actors and actresses working today - Tom Cruise, Julianne Moore, William H. Macy, Philip Seymour Hoffman - could easily have meant obscurity. Yet Gator, the host of a children’s game show who may or may not have molested his own daughter, is given the greatest scene: reading a question about classical music, he becomes disoriented and, rambling, reveals the answer before collapsing. It lasts little more than a minute, during which the camera tracks in slowly without ever cutting away, and Hall has complete command over the moment.
His career outside of those roles, however, has been mixed. His turn as Nixon was followed by a handful of television movies. His Sydney preceded small, sometimes uncredited appearances in summer blockbusters like Air Force One and Michael Bay’s The Rock. And Jimmy Gator gave way to ten-minute roles in political thrillers. A loyal following has stayed with Hall through every turn in his career, from unremarkable second-tier characters (The Truman Show and Dogville) to inferior remakes (Van Sant’s Psycho, The Amityville Horror) and departures into television, and anyone who’s seen him in any role knows why—he’s an alchemist, turning raw material into solid gold. Even so, it’s been twenty-three years since Hall starred in a lead role.
Duck, written and directed by Nic Bettauer, opens with a series of photographs detailing our protagonist’s journey - from young man to married professor, from glowing father and husband to heartbroken and childless widower - we are first introduced to Arthur as he gathers together a few belongings in a backpack and leaves his apartment. Braced in one arm is a polished urn; in the other a small, ragged plant—a foreboding contrast of struggling life against lustrous death. As he leaves, his landlord accosts him in the hallway through a camera-and-speaker system, telling him to “take that trash out of the building, please… You know the rules about plants and animals.” Arthur mutters a conceding reply and leaves.
He makes his way across a highway to a closed park teeming with garbage; signs posted on and around the vast forest announce the construction of a mega-mall. Casually, Arthur pries one sign off the tree he planted in memory of his son, beds the other tree in its shadow along with the ashes of his wife, and lies down with a canteen of water and tin of pills to end his life. The image is slow and saccharine, even somewhat theatrical, and bathed in a hard orange filter; Arthur, lying on his side, seems determined to finalize the end of his family, to finally be at rest. But he’s interrupted by a small, skipping ball of yellow fuzz—a duckling separated from his mother after she was struck down by a car. Arthur rises, setting aside the mixed wealth of drugs, and takes the little bird home, naming it Joe.
Unfortunately, the world in which Arthur lives is a disaster. There are no decent forms of Medicare, no pensions or VA hospitals; Social Security has evaporated, recycling programs are gone, and rent control is a distant memory. The president is Jeb Bush. So, his savings spent years ago on medical treatments for his wife, Arthur is evicted; without any friends or source of income, Arthur assembles a makeshift home in the very park where he tried to overdose, stringing a hammock from the branches of his son’s tree: a child literally supporting his father. Joe, now fully grown, is the old man’s only companion in the downtown wilderness, and he spends the day swimming in a polluted pond and listening to Arthur’s lectures on history. When they’re evicted from the park by police, Arthur and Joe embark on a Mazurskian journey into the inner circles of Los Angeles.
Some have suggested that the use of “another Bush” - brother Jeb - as president is only part of Bettauer’s misuse of headlines in trying to create an atmosphere of relevance and social commentary. Possibly. But it also imbues Arthur’s world with a sense of desperation, that he caught in an unending cycle; like everybody else, he is trapped in a world overseen by yet another member of a very familiar political family. It’s the Groundhog’s Day mentality: when everyday life seems unbearably constant - the same mid-morning congestion, the same nine-to-five job, the same social disparities - and the future seem remote, even inaccessible, people become frightened and then, almost overnight, indifferent. The inhabitants of Arthur’s Los Angeles are caught in a frantic, recurring world and, slowly, have transformed into uncaring, unsympathetic people. Before leaving the park for good, Joe is harassed by a group of city workers who throw stones at him and drain his pond; Arthur is detained by two municipal mental-health employees who question him about his cognitive well-being, then release him back into the wild when police refuse to arrest him.
The Los Angeles depicted in Duck is also one of collective isolation, where civility and geniality are regarded as contagions—feared and foreign, kept at bay by intricate surveillance systems that allow one to speak without ever being seen, without ever risking infection. In a scene midway through the film, a Chinese-food deliveryman is involved in an automobile accident with two cars and a motorcycle. As he lies injured on the asphalt, cartons of food emptied across the intersection, the other drivers exchange apologies and drive away, leaving him wounded and ignored. Appearing from the sidewalk, Arthur crosses into the empty street, helps the man to his feet and, at his request, gathers the bike and bags of food so the man can continue his delivery.
In the very next scene, Arthur meets Norman, a blind man on a bus-stop bench; his seeing-eye dog, an older pooch named Tessa, lies quiet at his side. The two men are both exhausted, their distant memories spent on moments of despair, and they now share their lives with animals. Both recognize that, without their feathered and furry companions, they would fade away and die; and society, they agree, just doesn’t understand that. “We’re headin’ toward the beach,” Norman says, inviting Arthur along. He pays the bus-fare for both of them, but Joe isn’t allowed on. When Arthur steps off, Joe tucked under his arm, Norman is kept back by the hydraulic doors; he presses both hands to the Plexiglas, unsure of what is happening, before the groan of an engine marks his departure. The moment is heavy with dread, as though the bus were acting as a fashionable symbol of death, of Charon carrying Norman across a tar-black river to the sea.
In fact, there are hints of Providence throughout Duck, epitomized by Arthur’s encounter with a manicurist named Linh. Looking for someone to help Joe, who’s gathered a train of garbage, the woman offers him a salty footbath for his companion and restroom for his own needs. “I love animals,” she tells him, then relates her own story of survival. She is a refugee from Vietnam who came to the United States hoping to find a better life for her troubled daughter. She speaks very simplified English, jumbling some words and missing others, and complains that customers never acknowledge her. She worries that her new life hasn’t bettered her daughter at all. Interestingly, she notes beforehand that the shop usually isn’t open so early: “Take two hour to get here with traffic. Today, no traffic.”
Norman and Linh are portrayed by two familiar faces—Bill Cobbs and Amy Hill, who have themselves found fame in supporting roles. But Duck is above all else Hall’s film, and rightly so: he is never absent from sight for more than a few seconds, and the role is delightfully atypical. Where Nixon and Sydney and Jimmy Gator were all troubled by private demons manifest in the external world, Arthur Pratt is seemingly devoid of any inner vexations once he leaves his old, dusty apartment. His Arthur is, in a sense, heir to Umberto Ferrari. Cast into a world similar to De Sica’s Italy, where structure has given way to disorder and the most venerable of generations is either defensively rich or unbefittingly poor, a lone man is led from suicide by the presence of a small, judgeless creature. And together they rise above the death-rattle of an entire country to find solace with one another; when Flike is ensnared by dog-catchers and Joe hides from Los Angeles animal control, their owners react with the same cries and movements of anguish. Linh the disregarded manicurist is similar to Maria the benevolent maid, who feeds Umberto even when he doesn’t want food, who offers him human companionship when everyone else turns a cold shoulder. The closing scenes to both films are an emotional comfort while, at the same time, tinged with a hint of existential resolution. A feeling that Umberto and Flike can finally live without worry of separation, that Arthur and Joe finally caught the bus to the beach.