Set in Tennessee in the 1930’s, a burly and aging hermit (Robert Duvall) harbours a terrible secret that he wishes to unload before he dies. So he figures he’ll buy his own funeral party and ask people to say what they think of him while he’s still there to hear it. That’s basically the premise, which in and of itself is not uninteresting. And apparently, it’s based on a true story.
The characters are developed under a veil of mystery, secrecy, and latent remorse, and the judgemental eye of good, law abiding village folk stands as a constant reminder of who’s good and who’s not.
We are practically on the edge of our seats waiting to find out what terrible thing this man of ill repute might have done to cause him to live as a recluse for 40 years. Then, back in town after the death of her husband, sweet looking ex-lover Sissy Spacek reveals that she may be the only person to know what romantic good actually lurks under Duvall’s gruff exterior.
That part is interesting. But the weave sheepishly unravels when the frightful deed is finally exposed at the “live funeral.” One reason it was disappointing is that too many innuendos were laid out to be picked up by the viewer throughout the film, that end up not having a part in the dénouement at all. Another is more insidious: The seemingly relentless need of many Hollywood films to propel Christian values of forgiveness and redemption as the only way out of moral conflict.
Here the underlying message seems not simply about dark secrets, remorse, and one’s own means of repentance, but rather about being righteous by way of a particular set of beliefs: First, don’t mess with another man’s wife, and second, you can burn in a self-made hell for 40 years, but you still have to ask Jesus for forgiveness. Well, this may not sit well with all audiences.
Beyond the religious demagogy, the film stands on the performances of its two protagonists played by Robert Duvall, whose character is brilliantly conveyed through his eyes alone, and Bill Murray, who is precious as the gritty business-wise caretaker. The camera’s tight framing lets the viewer capture every nuance in the actor’s deliveries, as well as the feminine fragility of the charming Sissy Spacek.