Philip Baker Hall’s recognizable face is attached to a largely unrecognizable name; for decades Hall has been one of our best character actors. Rarely does Hall get a lead role, as he brilliantly did as President Nixon in Robert Altman’s Secret Honor (1984), the most substantial by far of the Nixon-films. In Duck, written and directed by Nic[ole] Bettauer, Hall again takes the lead, as Arthur Pratt, an older gentleman who is saved from suicide, following the death of his wife, by a duckling whom he names Joe. The couple had lost their son, Daniel, when the boy was a teenager. All-round, the film is indeed about loss; Arthur, delinquent in paying his Los Angeles rent, loses his apartment and becomes homeless. Or, rather, it is about lost and found: Joe, who has just lost her, attaches himself to Arthur because he mistakes Arthur for his mother; and Arthur attaches himself to Joe because he has nobody and nothing else. The old man and his companion travel together like Harry and Tonto, but without family to visit, and quite on their own, attracting meanness and some kindness along the way from Arthur’s species. They are required to travel by foot; “Not on my bus!” the bus driver territorially explodes before tossing the pair off. It’s a mean time in America, its social safety net having been ripped to feathers by President—gasp—Jeb Bush four years past the film’s date. What a loss for America that use cannot be found for Arthur’s gentleness, intelligence and heart. These cannot prevail against the Bushes’ heartless ambition.
Duck is episodic and picaresque, and it has been widely panned; surely it is no great work of art. But it is gentle and melancholy/hopeful, and it made me ache for America.
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