An early draft of A Night In Old Mexico was written by Lonesome Dove scribe Bill Wittliff about 35 years ago, and for the last 25 years he had been waiting for the chance to get his film made. Under the direction of Emilio Aragon, the long wait is now over. While I’m not sure how many changes were made to that original script, it’s safe to say that the timeless story feels just as fresh today as it would’ve if it had been made in the ’80s, the ’90s, or any other decade for that matter.
Red Bovie (Robert Duvall) is a rancher who’s lost everything. Years ago his wife and son ran away, and his cattle have all died. He can’t afford to keep his land either, meaning he’s lost the last thing he had to call his own. He’s planning to move off his sprawling ranch and into a tiny trailer park where he can live out the rest of his days. Things change though when his grandson Gally (Jeremy Irving), who Red has never met, shows up for a visit.
When they arrive at the trailer park, Red realizes that there’s no way he can spend the rest of his life in a tin can, and in a moment of spontaneity, he speeds away. With Gally in the passenger seat, Red makes a run down to Mexico to have one last night of drinking, women and dancing. On the way, they pick up a couple of hitchhikers but then leave them at the side of the road when the strangers are disrespectful and drink too much of Red’s beer. What they don’t know though is that the hitchhikers left their bag in the car, meaning Red, his grandson, and a singer they befriend (Angie Cepeda) find themselves with a sack full of money and some tough criminals in pursuit.
The film’s driving force is Red, and he’s an absolutely fascinating character. There’s a scene at the beginning of the film where Red talks to God as an equal. Not an equal in the sense of Red thinking he has the same power as a deity, but rather that he’s willing to make it perfectly clear to the big man upstairs that he’s not happy with the crummy hand he’s been dealt. That conversation coupled with a moment considering suicide (and nearly doing more than just considering it) sets the tone for the character’s emotional state in just about as powerful of a way as any that could be penned. He’s gruff, brash and prideful, but most of all, he’s suffering with the emotional pain of working his whole life at something only to have nothing to show for it. That’s a powerful place for a character to begin.
Duvall, who’s played more iconic characters than almost anyone in Hollywood, does it again with Red Bovie. For much of the film Red is a despicable person, yet it never seems like his hardened exterior is any more than just that. Duvall turns that craggly old rancher into a complex man who’s worth rooting for even in his most unlikable moments. The emotional range that Duvall conveys is what turns the film from a good one into a great one, and Red is an extremely memorable character, especially in a demographic that isn’t often represented in leading roles.
For the majority of A Night In Old Mexico the story is very dark. You have Red, dealing with the feelings of inadequacy in his life, Gally trying to connect with a relative he’s never met while dealing with his own problems, and Patty, who has resorted to appearing nude on stage just so she’ll be given time to sing. There’s not really anything light going on there, and you can throw in quite a few deaths and murders as the plot goes along. Yet, the film never falls to the a depressing level of despair. There are many lighter moments, not the kind that detract from the gravity of the darker elements of the story, but rather enough to make it an enjoyable film for everyone. It’s not so light that it lacks weight and not so dark that it becomes an overly dreary film. Almost a perfect balance is found between those two sides.
Another aspect that shows the film’s duality well is the cinematography. Shot mostly around Brownsville, Texas, every frame is a feast for the eyes and as filling as the best Tex-Mex grub. The bleak, yet beautiful Texas landscape is contrasted so well by the excitement and costumes of the Dia de los Muertos festival (during which the film is set), and everything is composed in an impressive way by David Omedes. There’s nothing flashy about the cinematography, but by the end of the film I was struck by just how well it worked throughout.
The story escalates through a series of coincidences and misfortunes, but nothing ever seems out of place. Multiple villains are present and each one seems to be more interesting than the last. While none of the characters are conventional action heroes, there are enough tense incidents to keep things exciting, while still staying very grounded. Aragon finds just what an 80-year-old man and a wimpy twenty-something can get away with in terms of action and pushes them right to that brim, balancing on the edge but never going so far that it falls into a parody.
Even if you strip away the cinematography, the tense action and every other quality element of the film, there still would be something special here. At its core, A Night In Old Mexico is a heartfelt tale about one man finding something to live for when he thought his whole life was in shambles. That aspect of the story is played to perfection by Duvall and supported by the rest of the cast. When watching the film I was impressed by many things, but upon reflection, it’s the heart of Red’s story that has stuck with me, and that’s what makes A Night In Old Mexicoa must-see.
Robert Duvall's excellent performance as a cantankerous rancher makes A Night In Old Mexico a night to remember.