DUCK is a bittersweet little film that charts an uneven course between comedy and drama. When it works, it is heartbreaking and heartwarming, when it doesn’t, it’s a shame. It doesn’t fit into any neat category, which might explain its limited theatrical release in 2007, but it’s that very thing that makes it a bright spot on the DVD shelf.
Set in 2009, a place of extreme sunlight thanks to global warming, and social disorder thanks to a third Bush administration (Jeb, this time rather than Dubya) it’s the story of Arthur, a man left alone after the untimely death of his son, and the painful, prolonged death of his wife. Depressed, disrespected, and about to be homeless, Arthur is about to take the easy way out when he’s adopted by a baby duck. It’s a forthright creature who marches right up to him expecting to be loved, and by gum, that’s exactly what Arthur does.
Writer/director Nicole Bettauer adds lyrical moments as well some duck’s-eye views of key moments. The sadness of a 70-year-old man discarded by society is tempered by the distinct bond he forges with the duck, who seems to be somewhat smarter than the average fowl, and certainly more emotionally sensitive. Phillip Baker Hall gives a truly memorable performance as Arthur, a guy who comes back from the brink thanks to the duck’s need to be cared for, and as a result to cheerfully accept what life has dealt him. His attachment to Joe, as he names him, is palpable and completely endearing. Is it possible for humans to have this sort of chemistry with a bird? Hall makes it seem not only possible, but reasonable. It is also no inconsiderable achievement that he works so well with the duck, rolling with the animal’s eccentricities in such a way that they seem scripted. They’re not, as the Bettauer and Hall discuss in the commentary track. Secrets of duck training and the delicate art of duck handling by an actor before the camera come in for discussion, as well as the revelation that one of the ducks in question is the one featured in an insurance commercial.
The undercurrent of the film is the small extrapolation of where society as a whole is going when it comes to its most vulnerable citizens and it is set forth with a straightforward directness. Arthur’s pension has evaporated, his savings gone to care for his wife, and the safety net of Social Security gone. The poignancy of Arthur describing to a nursing home administrator what he’d like in a place to live is mirrored in the administrator’s face, which is full of compassion and the sure knowledge that Arthur is going to be living on the streets. It’s also mirrored in what is reported in the media everyday. By going only a few years into the future, the film was made in 2005, Bettauer keeps things firmly set in an all too real world. Arthur’s ramblings through the desert that is Los Angeles take him through the good, the bad, and the peculiar as he learns the ropes of keeping himself and Joe safe, while still maintaining an optimistic, even trusting nature. One that lets him take the lead in saving someone from suicide, or giving up hoarded socks to someone who needs them more.
Other bonus features in DUCK include an extensive interview with Hall in which he discusses his theory of creativity, and how to act with a duck. Bettauer, in her interview, extols Baker’s talent, the way a film festival audience can put things in perspective, as well as the way, as she put is “the duck can’t be denied.” The one thing I really missed, and is outtakes. A montage of flubs, duck and man, seems like it would have been a natural, not to mention wildly funny.
DUCK is humane and hopeful in an oddball sort of way. Part allegory, part metaphor, part love story, it’s like nothing else you’ve even seen and completely charming.