Robert Duvall made Assassination Tango, casting himself in the lead as an aging hit man sent to Argentina to kill one of the military thugs responsible for human rights abuses under the former regime.
To me this is a peculiar movie in a lot of ways (probably more good ways than bad). The challenge is in trying to articulate why it struck me that way.
There are a lot of elements to this movie that get significant attention: The main plot of the “hit,” the Duvall character’s domestic situation with his girlfriend and her young daughter, the development of a possible romantic link between his character and a young local woman he meets while in Argentina, and an examination of tango as a cultural phenomenon. I’ll address them each.
The suspense/thriller/crime story of the assassination plot against the general is pretty conventional. Maybe slightly better done, slightly better acted (Duvall is obviously an excellent actor) than in most movies, but nothing extraordinary. It mostly held my interest, but for a viewer who’s focusing primarily on this element of the movie, I’d think he or she would get a little frustrated at the slowness of its development and the plot delays caused by the movie’s frequent shifting of its attention to the other elements.
Some of it didn’t make sense to me, and some of it that (I think) I did understand struck me as implausible, but only to about an average degree compared to other movies of this genre. I take it there’s some double crossing and police corruption and people trying to outmaneuver those who are nominally on the same side and so on, but I only got some of that. Late in the film the Duvall character makes a remark indicating he himself is not sure about some of what happened; I hope that’s an indication the audience also was not given enough evidence to figure it all out. Otherwise some of it just went over my head (which, again, is not unusual for this kind of movie).
I really liked the relationship between the main character and his girlfriend’s daughter. That hit home with me emotionally, in part because of my own attachment to some wonderful little girls who are not blood relatives. One of the things that’s unusual about this film to me is that there are certain aspects that feel impressively real, and this is one of them. I very much bought that she would have the kind of emotional impact on him that the movie suggests.
This element is stronger in quality than quantity. The relationship is presented early in the movie to establish it for the audience, and it’s always kind of present in the background, but you don’t even see the girl and her mother again until briefly at the very end. I would like to have seen more, at least if it could have maintained the same level of quality and realism.
His relationship with the girlfriend herself is left even more unexamined. Clearly he has a significant and positive attachment to her, and he always speaks very well of her, but just as clearly he doesn’t have the kind of extraordinary bond with her that he does with her daughter.
And that’s OK. That’s not unrealistic. It’s all about who you are and where you are in life. I could see myself falling totally in love with a woman and just liking her daughter, or I could see myself being fond of a woman but growing much more attached to her daughter. The former would have been a lot more likely earlier in my life, the latter would if anything be more likely now, but both are possible. Not every love story has to be a sexual man-woman thing. This girl touched something in the Duvall character, and it’s really a cool thing to see how they interact and to hear how he speaks of her.
I also think it’s interesting the way the professional and domestic elements flesh out the main character. It would have been easy to depict his involvement with his girlfriend and her daughter as softening him and making him unable to continue to function as a hit man, but that isn’t the direction Duvall chose. His character’s really not a good person. Even when the people who hire him provide him an opening to rationalize his intended murder as a matter of justly eliminating a truly evil person, he waves it all off as a lot of meaningless politics that is irrelevant to his job.
He’s a killer. He doesn’t try to excuse or justify it, and the audience is not encouraged to do so.
He also manifests occasional elements of temper or instability that make him the kind of person one could never fully relax around, which is in keeping with his profession and lifestyle. It’s not much, but it’s just enough of a Joe-Pesci-in-Goodfellas creepiness to provide a certain ominous quality to the character and the movie.
To the point where you wonder if truly the most loving thing he could do toward his girlfriend and her daughter, the best way he could repay them for reawakening him emotionally, would be to bow out of their lives entirely in recognition of how unintentionally toxic he could be to them in any number of ways. That’s what ran through my mind, the ironic idea that the very act of connecting at this deep level with another human being would make him realize that it’s too late for him to be able to constructively act on such a connection and thus that he should break it before it’s too late.
The Duvall character’s complexity is interesting and believable. His bad traits feel real, and his good traits—as manifested especially in his interactions with his girlfriend’s daughter—feel real. And they’re somehow integrated into a whole person in a way that works.
I don’t know how to explain why it works for me here, and why it mostly didn’t work for me in a movie like The Man of the Year. Maybe the explanation is just Duvall’s skill as an actor (and a moviemaker), but somehow in some movies a person can be shown as both good and evil and my reaction is “Why not? Real people are never all one or all the other,” and yet when people in other movies are presented seemingly similarly I just find it implausible, contradictory and random, like they’re acting out of character half the time.
But bottom line, I liked how the Duvall character had a depth to him, how he could be a likable, sympathetic person capable of impressive love and kindness, and yet not be unrealistically, unambiguously good across the board—not even close.
The third element I mentioned above is the subplot of the Duvall character’s involvement with a young Argentinian woman, a tango dancer and instructor.
There’s a lot to potentially criticize about this—it’s slow, it’s unconvincing (in terms of the age difference, mostly), and it (along with his dalliances with prostitutes) arguably undercuts the notion that he’s really all that attached to his current girlfriend and her daughter—but I found myself drawn in to some extent.
I think the main reason—and this is true of the movie as a whole, but especially some of the scenes in Argentina that get away from the main plot of the “hit”—is that I found the style of acting and the dialogue to be intriguingly unusual and real for a movie.
I got the impression some of the people were playing themselves or at least were amateurs. That doesn’t always translate into anything positive; indeed if anything you’re more likely to get stilted dialogue, self-consciousness, etc. For instance in the Van Zant movies like Elephant where he uses non-actors, it’s mixed—sort of fresh and real but at the same time “amateurish” in the bad way. So interesting, but a little cringe-worthy here and there as well.
But I thought Duvall pulled it off. It was like he knew these people in real life, he’d interacted with them a lot, and he said, “Let’s just talk like we normally would and pretend the cameras aren’t here,” and then filmed a lot of partially ad libbed exchanges like that, in the end picking out what he needed.
I’m thinking for instance of the scene where his character is in a restaurant or coffeehouse with the tango instructor girl. That’s where I was most struck by how the dialogue sounded more like life than like a movie, maybe just in the way certain aspects of it were non-functional. Like he would momentarily misunderstand something she said due to her accent, and he’d make a joke about it. Or one of them would ask the other to repeat something because he or she had spoken a little too low. These are things that in a regular movie either wouldn’t happen at all, or would have some “point” to them, something they were meant to establish about the characters. But in real life, trivial things happen in conversation that don’t move a plot forward, don’t reveal something new about the characters of the participants, don’t sound like they were written by screenwriters, etc. They’re just stumbles and offhand remarks and little witticisms that don’t mean anything in particular.
The style of conversation is kind of like in a Woody Allen movie, where the characters hesitate and cut each other off and don’t speak everything in turn with artificially smooth pacing. But even there, to me Woody Allen movie dialogue may be a little more real than what you hear in the average movie, but it still sounds more like Woody Allen movie dialogue than reality. It sounds like a different style of acting rather than non-acting. This movie at times went beyond that and sounded like real conversation.
Then again, other people could see this movie and either not notice this at all, or say it struck them as the artificial and wooden dialogue of non-actors trying to act.
So, I don’t know, I didn’t find the substance of the subplot with the Argentinian girl all that compelling, but at times the style of it intrigued me.
The parts about tango dancing, which obviously overlap with the parts about her, stepped even further away from the style of a mainstream movie, and at times veered toward a dramatization-style documentary. In these scenes—for instance, the scene in a club where some older Argentinians are describing the tradition and meaning of tango in their culture to the Duvall character—the dialogue is at times just a little more stilted.
But still, nothing extreme. It’s still mostly refreshingly real, like these people talk about these same things in real life when there are no cameras.
By way of comparison, consider the parts of the documentary The American Ruling Class that are done in dramatization form, where Lewis Lapham travels around with two actors playing college students, and he pretends to show them the ways of the world. As much as that movie’s heart was in the right place, that device was uncomfortable and artificial. The worst of the speechifying about tango in Assassination Tango only goes about 20% of the way as far down that road.
As far as the substance of the tango parts of the movie, my reaction is twofold. One, it didn’t work for me, in the sense that I didn’t come away from the movie impressed with the tango, wanting to learn more about it, etc. It’s not really my kind of thing, not something I’m likely to appreciate. But two, I was won over to some extent by their passion for it, especially since I had the feeling these were real people talking about things that matter to them in their real life. So tango itself didn’t particularly interest me, but their interest in tango interested me somewhat.
No doubt it’s a self-indulgent thing: Presumably Duvall in real life became fascinated with tango and some of its practitioners that he met, and he decided instead of doing a straight documentary about it, he’d work it into a regular movie. But I’m OK with that. Even if I don’t join him in his passion, it’s kind of cool that he wanted to share it with people through his movie.
And it’s reasonably well integrated into the movie. Not in the sense that there’s not a noticeable difference in style and substance to the tango scenes, but in the sense that those differences aren’t jarring and don’t feel crudely cobbled together.
In summary, Assassination Tango is slow at times, I wouldn’t say I was consistently entertained throughout, and it’s not a movie I’d be eager to watch in its entirety again, but something about the intangibles appealed to me significantly. When it was over, I had the sense I’d just watched a movie that was somehow subtly different from just about any other movie I’ve seen, and mostly in good ways.
I feel an attachment to this film out of proportion to the degree to which I liked it while I was watching it. I’m glad I saw it, and I like Duvall as a filmmaker.