Robert Duvall’s Jackson Fentry in Tomorrow

As with any good work of fiction, a classic film contains a selection of details arranged in such a way that we are drawn into an imaginative world. In that world, our experience is illuminated, our vision expanded. All the important details are worth noting in a great film, but the ones that are arguably most accessible to us, the ones that most importantly engage us, are found in the acting. Last month I wrote on Robert Duvall’s Boo Radley in To Kill a Mockingbird. Here, I want to draw everyone’s attention to his portrayal of Jackson Fentry in Tomorrow, a film that, while lacking the popularity of To Kill a Mockingbird, has at its heart a performance as beautiful as any Duvall has given us. Like To Kill a Mockingbird, Tomorrow is filmed in black and white, its screenplay by Horton Foote.

Students would do well to watch the entire film and, while doing so, look closely at Duvall’s acting: What voice does he adopt? What do his clothes and routine convey about his circumstances? How does Duvall position himself in his surroundings and among other people, especially Sarah, the other major character in the story? How are his expressions distinctive to the different settings, marked as they are by chronology, location, and relationships? In the beginning and ending of the film, the narrator wonders aloud about Duvall’s character. What is it that makes him wonder? At several critical junctures in the story Duvall’s character finds himself confronting the law. How is that evident? What is his motivation?

With those questions in mind, let’s take a look at some details in the film. They should help provide initial answers to the questions above.

Based on a William Faulkner short story, Tomorrow takes place in rural Mississippi, in the first part of the twentieth century. How do we know the time? The central character is Jackson Fentry, and he is the son of a widowed cotton farmer. Late in the film, we learn that Papa Fentry fought in the Civil War under Generals Jackson and Longstreet and looks to be in his sixties or seventies. 

With the exception of his father, who calls him Jackson, everyone we meet calls Duvall’s character by his family name. Fentry is exceedingly poor, evidenced most noticeably by his worn out clothes. There are many tears in his shirt and pants; some of them expose his white long johns. We see, too, that the leather upper of his right boot is partly unseamed. 

The opening of the film captures for us the tail end of a trial. We hear an attorney making the closing argument in defense of his client, H.T. Bookwright, a local resident accused of killing a man. The victim is Buck Thorpe, a young ne’er-do-well, as the lawyer explains, who tried to run away with Bookwright’s daughter, whereupon Bookwright shot him. 

As we listen to the attorney, Fentry’s attentive face peers out from the back row of the jury. The camera then shifts to the jury room. A tall, black-suited man who might be the foreman or maybe just a very vocal juror forcefully recounts in his own words the defense attorney’s argument: that Thorpe had it coming and that Bookwright had the moral high ground. Fentry concedes one point, agreeing that “Yes sir,” someone at some point was going to kill young Thorpe. The imposing juror reels on Fentry and demands, “So what do you want? What do you want?!?” Fentry clearly feels the pressure of this demand. He is the lone opponent to the otherwise unanimous perspective that Bookwright acted justifiably because Thorpe was a bad man. We feel Fentry’s discomfort, the burden of the stand he takes. He cannot even lift his eyes and look squarely at the angry juror. With his gaze angled away, he musters an answer: “I can’t hep it. I ain’t gonna vote Bookwright free.”

The bulk of the movie follows that scene and is a flashback to twenty years prior. We travel back to find an answer to the question: Why can’t Fentry vote with the rest of the jury? As the movie shifts in time, a voiceover from the defense attorney tells us that the Bookwright case was his very first, and he is keen to know why he lost it—why, in particular, Jackson Fentry withheld a vote of not guilty, thereby causing a hung jury and a mistrial. “If any of us had known what I know now,” he says, “Jackson Fentry would never have been on that jury.”

In the first scene of the flashback, we see Fentry leave his father’s farm to take a job as the caretaker of a sawmill thirty miles away. It is winter. His life is isolated there as the mill is closed for the season. In fact, we never see the mill in operation, nor do we see the property owner, only his son who makes just three brief appearances. As caretaker, Fentry is given quarters, a ramshackle house—really, just one dirty room with a potbelly stove and a spartan set of crude furnishings, including a bedframe with a well-worn mat, a small table and two chairs. Water is available from the pump outside. When he needs to go into town, he is allowed to take the owner’s mule. Otherwise, he walks everywhere. 

Duvall’s Jackson Fentry says more than his Boo Radley does, but not much more. His voice is flat, nasal, and pitched deeper than Duvall’s normal speaking voice. Fentry is illiterate, simple, his face mostly expressionless. We see him smile in only a few scenes, all of them within one brief section of the film that takes places at his father’s farm. There is in Fentry’s manner none of the signature head and hand movement—wagging, stabbing, thrusting—that we may recall from some of Duvall’s more effusive characters. Rather, Duvall delivers his lines in a generally grey timbre, varied only by a few extended vowels and the occasional pitch raised above the baritone he has adopted, thereby matching his surroundings, poor and dreary as they largely are. 

The flashback that makes up most of the film is uneventful until Christmas Eve morning. Fentry is eating his breakfast before heading out on the thirty mile walk to spend Christmas day with his father. The trip is disrupted when, as he is rinsing his plate and cup at the water pump, the sound of a woman’s muffled moans catches Fentry’s ear. He finds the woman at the edge of the sawmill, on the ground, faint and distressed. Sarah—or as Fentry calls her, SAY-rah—is sickly, abandoned by her husband, scorned by her father and his family, and clearly well along in pregnancy. Like the Good Samaritan, Fentry springs into action and marshals what resources he has. He helps her inside his little house, where he stokes the fire, sets her up to rest, and tends to her. 

As she recovers, Fentry and we become acquainted with Sarah. Her bright blonde hair and fair skin contrast with the dusty greys and sooty blacks of the room she now occupies. Where Fentry says little, she talks constantly. While his voice is deep, flat and twangy, hers is soft and lyrical. Sometimes Sarah slips into a little song or reminisces about some past image that remains dear to her, sweetening the air with charming first person references: “And I said to myself, I said…” and then telling her story from that viewpoint. She wonders aloud her hopes and concerns: “I wonder where’ll I be after spring,” and, “I wonder whether it’ll be a girl or a boy.” 

All of this is one occasion after another for Fentry’s response. In each scene, he is ever so subtly responding to Sarah’s presence. When Fentry speaks, it is almost always the voice of concern: “You ain’t gettin’ cold are you?” His eyes soften, his lids settle as he watches and listens to her musings. In spite of their close proximity, living as they do in the one-room quarters, the closest thing to a charged moment happens out beyond the nearby woods, sitting in a grassy field where Fentry shares his hope to build a house some day. As usual, Sarah is talking on and on, and he is listening. At one point, she reaches for him and refastens a safety pin that holds the shoulder of his old shirt together. Fentry is sitting just a bit higher than she is so that his eyes are looking down at her face, with faintly evident traces of tenderness and longing. She looks up at him, not longingly but knowingly: she knows this man has fallen for her. So far, he is silent about it so she need not confront the fact directly. 

Then one day, by a fire where he squats and stirs a hot cast iron pot full of soaking laundry, and she sits, wondering aloud about the future, Fentry asks Sarah for her hand: “MAY-ree me, SAY-rah.” She declines, but it is not a matter of the heart; it is, she says, a matter of the law: “I can’t,” she explains. “I got a husband.” “He abandoned you,” Fentry protests, with a physical and moral firmness we will only see a couple of more times, each one in a scene in which what he cherishes most in life is directly imperiled. “Well, it’s against the law and….” Her explanation loses any steam it had and trails off in the face of Fentry’s solidity.

The film is really worth watching. For that reason, I want to refrain from recounting any more details lest the story be spoiled. My point in highlighting the scenes above is to provide a glimpse or two of Duvall’s acting. We simply don’t expect this poor, expressionless man to know what to do in the difficult situations that confront him. We do not anticipate his capacity of the heart. However, Duvall’s acting convinces us that Fentry’s care for Sarah is both his response to her dire straits and the development of real love. By tending to Sarah, Duvall’s Fentry makes us care more for her. By his understated but recognizably tender response to her lovely ways, we feel drawn in a direction that opposes the law. That tension between law and love played out between competing claimants, with Fentry as the unexpected measure, presents itself several more times in the film and, more than any other factor, shapes the human drama at its heart. 

When the film directs us back to the conclusion of the trial twenty years after that fateful encounter at the sawmill’s edge, we see Fentry ride off on his mule, a representative group of jurists and jurors watching him depart. The voiceover, once again, is the defense lawyer’s. He utters in wonder, and I think admiration, about the holdout: “I could never have guessed Fentry’s capacity for love.” By the end of the movie, we also wonder about that capacity. And through the steady accumulation of details evidenced in Fentry’s face, voice, and actions, we are more than surprised at who he is and what he did. We are in awe. Even in the poor little corner of the world he inhabits, his love represents the expansive greatness of our humanity. Duvall does that for Fentry. He does that for us.

Andrew J. Zwerneman serves as president of Cana Academy. This post appears as the Arrangements column in the July, 2019 issue of ToolKit, Cana Academy’s online magazine for humanities teachers. ToolKit is available each month at any membership level, paid or free. Next month’s Arrangements focuses on Robert Duvall’s Mac Sledge in the 1983 film, Tender Mercies.

Banner image courtesy of Film Comment Used under Fair Use.