Posted by: gdevi | February 9, 2010

Movie Review: Tomorrow (1972)

The university library’s copy of the movie version of Faulkner’s Barn Burning which I usually show my students is apparently irretrievably lost, so today in place of Barn Burning I showed my class another movie adaptation of a Faulkner story. I read Tomorrow many many years ago; I love Faulkner’s stories. There was a time when I used to know many passages from Faulkner by heart; particularly from The Wild Palms which is one of my absolute favorite novels, bar none. (I must think tonight how much of The Wild Palms I can still recall. God, what a novel.) Horton Foote, one of my favorite screen-writers–he wrote that wonderful, wonderful movie Tender Mercies and wrote the screen-play for To Kill a Mockingbird and Barn Burning–Foote wrote the screen-play adaptation of Faulkner’s short story Tomorrow.  Robert Duvall plays Fentry, the slow-witted main character–he is just one step up from Boo Radley, really–and Olga Bellin plays Sarah Eubanks, the woman fate brings to Fentry on a Christmas eve. Sarah is eight months pregnant, abandoned by her husband, and abandoned by her family because she married against their wishes. Fentry nurses her and falls in love with her; he repeatedly asks her to marry him.  Faulkner is a master of emotional asymmetries and Duvall plays Fentry with the sort of simple intensity that he is really good at evoking so that we get a sense of the qualitative difference between Fentry’s deep-seated feelings towards Sarah and Sarah’s general acceptance of Fentry’s solid companionship, counting on him and wanting to marry him while feeling confused over the husband who abandoned her. The emotional asymmetry continues with Fentry bringing up Sarah’s child with devotion until Sarah’s family comes to claim the child as their “kin.” This skewing of perspective peaks in the scene where Sarah’s brothers give him money (after beating him up nice and good) to thank him for taking care of Sarah’s child. Duvall said in an interview once that Fentry and Augustus McCrae (from Lonesome Dove) are the two characters he most loved to play and you can see why when you watch this movie. A quiet movie about simple, good people enduring painful tragedies with inward dignity. Duvall is adept at playing these characters that endure great vicissitudes in life with inward moral strength–his role in The Apostle or Tender Mercies or even the Confederate general in Gods and Generals, for instance. Salt of the earth characters–now and then you see them in the South– you know they will give the shirt off their back for you, men who are masters of their destiny, however tragic this destiny might be, as in the case with Faulkner’s characters. While Duvall stands out in his nearly inarticulate role as Fentry, there isn’t a single character in this film that is not memorable. Bellin plays Sarah with the fragility and clarity of a simple woman nearing her death. Even the small cameos by Sudie Bond as the midwife, James Franks as the preacher, or William Hawley as Pa Fentry are wonderfully sensitive and unforgettable. Simply shot in black and white, the movie evokes a timeless backwoods Mississippi landscape of cotton fields, mules, water holes, tall trees and open skies; nature is never different from the human eye that witnesses it in Faulkner’s stories and Foote’s screenplay and Joseph Anthony’s direction appropriately hold back from foregrounding place. Most of the action is shot inside Fentry’s shack, which houses both a birth and a death. The title of the story naturally brings to mind Macbeth’s famous soliloquy which provided Faulkner the title of his other celebrated novel. And yet here in this short story, in Fentry’s final and uncompromising decision at the Bookright trial we find a simple stand against the invasion of nothingness that consistently threatens Faulkner’s universe.

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