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A Family Thing/B, B+

US/1996/Color/Widescreen 2.35:1/Surround Sound,DD/109 minutes/Directed by Richard Pearce/Starring Robert Duvall, James Earl Jones/MGM/28 Chaps/Theatrical Trailer/CLV/$39.98

Performance is the "thing" here, and indeed it is a treat to watch two pros like Robert Duvall and James Earl Jones go at each other in this unusual comedy/drama. The story is unusual and not overly complex and ultimately depends on the skill of the actors to pull it off. Much of the film consists of a dialogue between Duvall and Jones playing newly discovered septuagenarian brothers born of the same black mother. It’s difficult for aging actors to find vehicles for which they can function as the driving force, but A Family Thing fits the bill. This is one of the most natural roles that Duvall has had in years. The small Duvall mannerisms are welcome parts of the character of Earl Pilcher. Watch Duvall work the death scene of Pilcher’s mother. The actors make this an especially beautiful moment, with a poignancy founded on realism. There is an inevitability about the passing of the sick woman, a sense of relief, but the loss is still expressed by Duvall with remarkable subtlety. For Jones, playing Raymond Murdoch is a chance to delve into his own background, using a stutter as a trait of Raymond, something that the golden voiced actor suffered from as a young man.

Written by Billy Bob Thorton and Tom Epperson, the duo responsible for the indie hit One False Move several years ago, A Family Thing moves effortlessly from the deep South to Chicago. A white southern 60 year old cracker discovers that he is the son of a black women and sets out on a journey of discovery. On finding his brother, there are several confrontations between brothers, but still Earl winds up staying at Ray’s apartment where he is introduced to the delightful blind Aunt T, wonderfully played by for Irma P. Hall. Michael Beach manages to temper the bitterness of Ray’s son Virgil with a strong sense of dignity and before this surprise visit is over, everyone concerned will have a better understanding of life.

Trains are used in an interesting fashion by filmmaker Richard Pearce. Right after Pilcher’s mother passes on, he stands on his porch as a long train passes by on the tracks alongside the house, symbolizing life’s journey. Later, when he finds his brother Raymond Murdoch, he too alongside an elevated train, emphasizing the bond between the brothers brought up as strangers. The transitions in their relationship can conveniently be punctuated by a passing train. It’s a way of linking their lives that relates to past and present. Pearce does beautiful work with one major flashback sequence relating the circumstances of Earl Pilcher’s birth.

The Pilcher journey, interpreted by Duvall, is completed where it began, in Dixie. It’s a satisfying trip, with some unusual turns, directed with understanding by Richard Pearce. Pearce finds the proper sense a pace to serve the eccentricities of A Family Thing well.

The level of professional treatment extends to the laserdisc production. The excellent sharpness balance does not result in excessive edge enhancement. Various lighting conditions are properly adjusted delivering a bright transfer. Colors are natural. The soundtrack is very clean, though not overly aggressive. A Family Thing is a pleasure to watch. Unusual, personal films are seen all too seldom these days.