Duvall’s grace comes ultimately from accepting fate and becoming a part of the land itself, even in times of failure, as in the last moments of Bull Meechum’s life. It is more than merely settling down; it is a recognition of God’s plan for repairing incomplete souls and settling a new land, where we can make the transition from our past to our future and, in the process, become fully individual. Duvall makes flowers bloom in the desert, as what makes a place is not just a homestead or a plot of soil but rather the unbreakable bond that his characters have with their surroundings.
His characters, of course, all spring from different authors or screenwriters. What unites them is Duvall’s understanding of that American sense of place. While I can’t speak for him, the force that for decades has unified his characters, even the misguided ones, is this powerful steadfastness, an uprightness and desire for truth that gives a reality to each of the movies. And when Duvall is the centerpiece (moral or otherwise) of the film, it becomes more than a movie. It becomes a place itself, a reality that most viewers can at least intuit if not actually believe.
If as a nation we are at risk for losing that sense of place, is Duvall singing the siren song of American individualism and faith in perfection? Perhaps few of us today are tightly tethered to the land and our neighbor in some sort of shared spiritual connection. Land is to own or use, but rarely today do we think of it as nourishment for the soul. We depend less on our own abilities to live off the land. We expect the state to provide for us, or others to protect us from the dangers of daily life, both large and small. We uproot ourselves with little thought, or are suffered to watch abandoned homes and For Sale signs blight our communities. We are peripatetic, sometimes by choice, sometimes by circumstance, and have lost the knowledge of being on a spiritual or communal journey in which each of us plays a part while belonging to a greater whole.
Our lives have been too hectic for too long to allow for such introspection, except maybe among the faithful for one morning a week. The striving that is a hallmark of American life today seems far less about place than about things: The conspicuous consumption of the past generation (as of many before it) has finally overwhelmed our economic system and paralyzed our political system and led to what will be a lost decade, if not more than that.
That’s where Robert Duvall and his characters envelop us with their quiet strength, with their bittersweet knowledge of having truly learned from their past grievous mistakes, and with their sense of contentment that comes only from accepting a higher power and the understanding of place that it gives us. Recognizing that the land is a gift, Duvall’s characters embrace redemption and service to self, to community, and (even when misguided) to God. To get back to that sense, if it is even possible, it is crucial to understand that perfection of the self, not society, is the prerequisite. It is not in the hands of the government or of any collective. Rather, the land is there to help us redeem ourselves and so reach our individual fullness. When we accept that, then we can become a natural community bound by tradition, responsibility, and the desire to strive for further perfection with a sense of limitation and humility.
— Michael Auslin is a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington. Follow him on Twitter @michaelauslin.