Episodic and theatrical, held together by the redoubtable Philip Baker Hall, this idiosyncratic indie about a homeless man and his adopted waterfowl is a series of stagy vignettes that never builds to a point.
Writer-director Nicole Bettauer's second feature opens well enough, with brisk and economical backstory told through a series of snapshots you just know will end in tragedy. We meet oldster Arthur Pratt, sitting and sighing on the side of his bed as a melancholy Leonard Cohen song rasps in the background. His 18-year-old son had died in 1979. Now his wife has just passed. Dressed in a natty suit, he picks up an urn of her ashes, a potted sapling and a backpack. Wandering through the haunts of his youthful marriage, he finally stops and plants the tree, spreading her ashes around it-next to the now-grown oak he'd planted for their child. When he's finished, Arthur lies down with a canteen and a few dozen pills. Then the duckling shows up.
It's a real duckling, and not an invisible angelic messenger or anything. But Arthur latches on to it like a lifeboat. Aside from his recent loss, he's out of money, having used up all his savings to care for his sick wife. It's the year 2009, and except for dusty orange light outside as if the ozone hole had spread, things look the same as now--but things aren't. Jeb Bush is president, and Social Security and the Veterans Administration have been bled dry, presumably to pay for brother George's war. Rent control has been abolished, and companies can get around their pension obligations. With no safety net, Arthur finds himself living in the park.
The park, soon to be site of luxury apartments, is itself going the way of "compassionate conservatism" (Don't you love a political philosophy that admits it normally has no compassion?), and Arthur finds himself journeying west to the ocean. Along the way, he and his duck, Joe, meet a polite would-be suicide-jumper (French Stewart, cast adrift in a ridiculously written role), a young homeless man (Bill Brochtrup, ditto), a treacly old blind man (Bill Cobbs), a compassionate pedicurist (the Japanese-Finnish character actor Amy Hill, in a beautiful one-scene performance) and Halloween partygoers who initially think he's a cool old guy masquerading as a bum, and turn incomprehensibly hostile when they learn he's down on his luck for real.
Virtually everyone in Duck is hostile, actually--even all the other homeless people except one--so Bettauer never gets across what she wants to say. People suck, and don't deserve a safety net? That don't seem right.
Hall remains valiant in the face of it, improvising well when the duckling doesn't hit its marks, and making palpable Arthur's dignity and decency. But here again, the writer-director doesn't seem to know who he is. Arthur appears rational, articulate and civilized, but you could argue he's slipped into mental illness. There's a line, after all, between talking to your pets and giving your pets detailed instructions on military search patterns and expecting them to understand. Then when the duck does, what are we to make of it? Seriously. Is he a normal duck or a science-fiction/fantasy duck?
Duck has won a couple of film-festival awards, so an audience for it may exist. Me, I'll duck.