Forty years ago, Robert Duvall made his film debut standing behind a door in "To Kill a Mockingbird." As Gregory Peck's emotionally damaged neighbor, the mysterious mute "Boo" Radley, Duvall loomed in the frame as silently terrifying as an Easter Island statue. In the decades since, the actor has made a brilliant career out of playing isolated men who, whether dispensing advice to the mob or shouting hallelujah with the faithful, are possessed of a violent and singularly American intensity.
Duvall is a covert talent -- it can be hard to pinpoint what makes him great. Some of this ambiguity has to do with his way of fading into a role. Although he's starred in a handful of movies and picked up an Oscar for best actor for the 1983 drama "Tender Mercies," he has by accident or design insistently remained a character actor throughout his tenure. Even when it appeared he had reached a career high -- playing first Marlon Brando's, then Al Pacino's consiglieri Tom Hagen in the first two "Godfather" films -- he caught our attention by being the quietest guy in the room.
It's instructive that even as Duvall easily held his own next to Brando and Pacino he never popped off the screen like them; instead, he bored into the part with the ferocity of a termite. For an actor looking to become a star, the role could have been a steppingstone, but for Duvall it would become one in a series of memorably marginal men. Unlike James Caan, a supporting player reaching for lead glory who never seemed to get over playing Sonny, Duvall transcended his "Godfather" role by playing against it. He kept the consiglieri's humility but increased the torque. By the time he got around to sniffing napalm in "Apocalypse Now," the actor had turned Tom Hagen inside out like a glove. The man alone was again in a world of his own.
This is an admittedly roundabout path to Duvall's latest feature, "Assassination Tango," but it's also very much of a piece with the film's digressive structure. The story opens in Coney Island, where Duvall's character, a low-level hit man named John J., lives with his girlfriend, Maggie (Kathy Baker), and her 10-year-old , Jenny (Katherine Micheaux Miller). A hairdresser, Maggie seems unconcerned with how John makes the cash he regularly slips her. When she does ask, he mumbles something about security work (he tells someone else that he owns a string of beauty parlors). The only honest thing Maggie knows about her lover is that he's crazy about her and her kid, and likes to put in time at a dance club called Frankie's.
Located not far from the boardwalk, Frankie's is one of those beat-up joints that time and gentrification forgot. During the day, John likes to watch the dancers practice their moves, sometimes in the company of Jenny. It's after hours, though, that he and the club come most alive. After he kisses his family good night, the hit man steps into the shadows and begins carrying out orders for the club's owner (a wonderful Frank Gio). A gravel-voiced hood whose connections reach all the way to Argentina, Frankie rides in a limousine stuffed with yapping poodles and always has someone around to light his cigars. Inexplicably, this small-time Brooklyn gangster knows a small-time Argentine fixer, which is how, with little fanfare and less logic, John ends up on a plane to Buenos Aires.
What happens next doesn't make much sense but that's part of the film's seduction. Written and directed by Duvall, "Assassination Tango" is a wonderfully eccentric piece of filmmaking -- to demand it cohere to formula would be to miss the point. Once in Buenos Aires, John discovers that he's been hired to execute ageneral whose resume is clogged with crimes against humanity. While John maps out the hit, aided by wary accomplices, the general ends up waylaid at a hospital. Stuck in Buenos Aires and at loose ends, John waits for the general to heal. He shops, he rehearses the kill, but mostly he busies himself learning the tango from the sylphlike Manuela (Luciana Pedraza).
In a movie world dominated by formula, the story of a tango-dancing assassin certainly seems quixotic, even mad, and maybe it's both. Given the choice, though, I'll happily take madness and originality in movies over safety and predictability any day. Duvall never worked with John Cassavetes -- though it's worth noting that the late director's son Frank has a role in the film -- and it's unclear whether like Cassavetes he's dissatisfied with traditional narrative or just has no use for it. After John first sees Manuela dance, watching her legs slice the air like knives, I expected a metaphor to emerge, something heavy about life, death and tango. Maybe it did (at least for Duvall) but because the film is so loosely organized and more interested in the passion and tension of real life than in genre mechanics, I never did find it.