Earl Pilcher Jr. is not Mr. Excitement. The gruff owner of a tractor dealership in a small Arkansas town, Earl considers a trip to nearby Shreveport a big deal. Yet this prickly, hardscrabble man in his 60s, carefully played by Robert Duvall, is about to embark on the greatest adventure life has to offer: He's going to find out exactly who he is.
Though it's burdened with a feeble title, "A Family Thing" tells a tale of risk and daring that is as engrossing as anything Indiana Jones might encounter. For what this casually racist middle-aged Southerner discovers is that, all visible evidence to the contrary, he is not pure Scotch-Irish but rather the son of a black mother he never knew existed.
While this story could have been the stuff of rank melodrama, having Richard Pearce ("Threshold," "The Long Walk Home") direct was insurance that wouldn't happen. Neither flashy nor dishonest, a wizard with restraint, Pearce has a gift for discovering the excitement in honest human behavior, and working from an acute script by Billy Bob Thornton and Tom Epperson, he's able to dramatize the story's essence without forcing the issue.
It was star Duvall who approached Thornton and Epperson, best known for combining on "One False Move," to write a screenplay on this subject. A superior actor unfamiliar with bad performances, Duvall has done especially well with the role he commissioned, subtly expressing a variety of interior states of mind. And, in quite a surprise, he is matched in intensity and impact by a Chicago-based actress named Irma P. Hall, who is captivating out of all expectation.
"A Family Thing" begins in Arkansas, with the death of the woman Earl has always considered his mother. A letter she wrote near the end reveals that his real mother was a woman named Willa Mae, who died giving birth. More than that, Earl discovers he has an African American half-brother named Ray Murdoch (James Earl Jones) who works as a policeman in Chicago.
Too torn apart and chagrined to tell any of this to his wife, a stunned Earl makes some excuse and heads for Chicago to fulfill the dead woman's last wish that he get to know this side of his family. To his astonishment, Ray Murdoch is not any happier about his existence than Earl is about Ray's. Cold and resentful about the circumstances of his mother's death, he taunts Earl by laughing and asking, "How does it feel, being colored?"
While a lesser film would find a way to sentimentalize their relationship, it is the particular grace of "A Family Thing" to emphasize how difficult any potential rapprochement between these two is going to be. Both men are sullen and set in their ways, filled with an anger and bitterness that tenaciously hangs on. Anyone expecting an easy answer to the troublesome push and pull they both feel is at the wrong movie.
"A Family Thing" has its weak points, especially in terms of the unimpressive plot contrivances that are essential to keeping Earl in Chicago. But balancing that is an emotional texture that is exactly right, plus a richness of characterization. Jones, using his natural stutter on screen for the first time, is both strong and vulnerable as Ray Murdoch, and Michael Beach makes an equal impression as Ray's son Virgil, gripped by problems of his own.
Even among all this notable work, Hall's performance as blind Aunt T., Willa Mae's redoubtable surviving sister and the story's emotional catalyst, is something to write home about. A former teacher who came late to acting, Hall has worked largely on stage up to now, but she brings such vivid life to the irascible, no-nonsense Aunt T., the kind of woman who doesn't need to say, "I'm not an old fool," but says it anyway, that no one, especially the filmmakers who give her the picture's closing scene, will be happy to see her leave the screen.
Though "A Family Thing" has a few too many big speeches, its most effective moments are its small ones, like Aunt T. and Earl on a trip to the grocery or the look on Earl's face when he reluctantly takes hold of the envelope with his mother's letter. If there were more films that explored America's racial divides with this much sense and sensitivity, maybe they wouldn't seem as broad and deep as they currently do.
* MPAA rating: PG-13, for some strong language, brief violence, and a childbirth scene. Times guidelines: Everything is handled with restraint.
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'A Family Thing'
Robert Duvall: Earl Pilcher, Jr.
James Earl Jones: Ray Murdoch
Michael Beach: Virgil Murdoch
Irma P. Hall: Aunt T.
David Keith: Sonny
A Todd Black & Randa Haines Butchers Run Films production, released by United Artists Pictures. Director Richard Pearce. Producers Robert Duvall, Todd Black, Randa Haines. Executive producer Michael Hausman. Screenplay Billy Bob Thornton & Tom Epperson. Cinematographer Fred Murphy. Editor Mark Warner. Costumes Joe I. Tompkins. Music Charles Gross. Production design Linda DeScenna. Art director Jim Nedza. Set decorator Ric McElvin. Running time: 1 hours, 49 minutes.
* In general release throughout Southern California.