“It’s been a long time since I danced just for the fun of it,” sighs a wayward stripper in Emilio Aragón’s A Night In Old Mexico, her wistful words perfectly articulating the sentiment that drives this ambling Robert Duvall star vehicle. Here’s a film that knowingly and transparently exists for little reason other than to let the 83-year-old actor bow out in a blaze of glory. And though A Night In Old Mexico won’t be Duvall’s last screen performance, it’s as fitting a farewell as he’s likely to get.
An amiable cross between No Country For Old Men and Nebraska that works best when it channels the latter, Aragón’s first English-language feature is held together by the force of its octogenarian lead. Duvall plays Red Bovie, a crotchety Texas rancher (naturally) whose land is being reclaimed by the bank and divided into “ranchettes.” His first inclination is to shoot himself in the head, but he can’t quite pull the trigger. In the first of the film’s many extraordinary coincidences, Red’s failed suicide attempt perfectly coincides with the arrival of Gally (Jeremy Irvine), the grandson he’s never met. “Bullshit you’re my grandson!” the old man bellows at the drippy kid from Manhattan, but it isn’t long before the two are packed into the front seat of Red’s Cadillac, heading south of the border for one last boozy hurrah. However, what sounds like the setup for a lightly ridiculous road trip is soon hijacked by a joyless subplot about a drug deal gone bad and the $150,000 of dirty money that was left in the back of Red’s car.
Shot with little grace but lots of gusto, A Night In Old Mexico works best when it fixes its focus squarely on Red, the kind of man who can’t make the slightest move without a squelch of leather. Duvall manages to embody the character with real integrity, while still allowing the withered rancher to feel out of time. Even when Red is forced to confront how his stubborn, old-world values have cost him his family, Duvall exhibits the happiness of an actor raging against the dying of the light. Re-teaming Duvall with Lonesome Dove screenwriter Bill Wittliff, the film moves at the relaxed gait of its protagonist, cohering into a wistful comedy of errors inflected with a streak of fantasy. At times, the material is closer in spirit to Last Vegas than it is to a sober death rattle like The Shootist.
Naturally, one of the first people Red and Gally encounter in Mexico is a beautiful young singer named Patty Wafers (Angie Cepeda), who reluctantly performs for rowdy gringos in a bar where each song is expected to end with a striptease. Patty’s art is as anachronistic as Red’s archetype, and the amusingly fast bond between them is far more believable than the circumstances by which their lives intersect. Their vaguely mutual sexual attraction is as funny as any of the film’s scripted jokes, but—unlike the hit men and drug lords who spread across the plot like a bad itch—Patty at least feels true to the bittersweet soul of Red’s story without distracting from it.
Red’s relationship with Gally is never developed beyond the obvious, but Patty’s foul-mouthed absurdity works to expose the old man in rewarding ways, putting him in touch with the love he’s lost for the life he’s lead. Of course, that process ultimately involves Duvall dancing with the madam of a brothel, running from punks with guns, and screaming things like, “No one’s gonna see me in my underwear!” A Night In Old Mexico doesn’t amount to much, but as the opening shot illustrates, a flickering motel sign is as bright as the moon when faced against a big night sky.