Well I was originally going to review Rémy Girard in The Barbarian Invasions but since that film is so assured of its own brilliance what use is there even to review it or one of its performances? I'd rather review Robert Duvall in this film. It's actually interesting that, despite seeming a perfect fit, Duvall mostly only really appeared in westerns as villains and that was before his breakout. After his break out his only major performance in a western was in the television miniseries Lonesome Dove, that was until this film perhaps that is why Kevin Costner was supposedly so adamant in casting Duvall in the role. It was really the perfect choice as Duvall seems as natural to the western setting as the rolling hills and the vast plains. From the opening scene Duvall just is this old time cattleman. Duvall carries that striking presence from the outset as he does not need to say much of anything just to exude a man of the time, and place. Duvall though takes this given even further though as he creates a powerful figure as he looks over his men, and his cattle, a man whose power isn't defined so much by strength rather something far more important.
Duvall in the early scenes as he works his men including the troubled former gunfighter Charley Waite (Costner), the gentle giant Mose (Abraham Benrubi) and the young Button (Diego Luna), Duvall projects himself as a father to the men. Duvall portrays the strength of Spearman very much coming from his respect he grants to his men, which they return to them, even when he is telling them to do something Duvall brings an inherent warmth in his delivery though still with an unquestioned command. Duvalll is essential as he creates the sense of the real camaraderie between the four men before tragedy befalls them when they come into contact with the town of Harmonville. An early fight eventually devolves into all four men being attacked by the men hired by a local land baron Baxter (Michael Gambon) which leaves Mose dead and Button in critical condition. Duvall excels in these scenes as usual as he is able to convey Spearman's distress so effectively without ever becoming overly emotional. In just a few moments and couple subtle reactions Duvall reveals Spearman's pain over his men's treatment but fitting to a man of his place in the old west. Duvall shows a man who has felt many losses over the years, but he knows how to deal with it though this still never leaves him ever truly detached in those quiet moments of sorrow.
The rest of the film proceeds to follow Spearman and Charley as they attempt to find justice for their friends. Duvall is great in an early confrontation between Spearman and Baxter. Again Duvall is excellent in the way he can offer such an emotional power to a moment without even raising his voice. Duvall offers though such conviction in every word in the confrontation, but pivotal to the character there is always this definite sense of righteousness due to Duvall's performance. When he demands action against those who committed the crimes he does not portray a violent anger, but rather this assured desire for justice to be done. Of course the lawman in town are corrupt and working for Baxter and have no desire to turn themselves in. This leaves Charley and Spearman to deliver their justice themselves by attempting to take on all the remaining corrupt men in town. They are given a brief respite due to a rainstorm which leaves the two time to try to prepare for the next day. In this time the two attempt to recruit others and something I love about Duvall's work is the way he sets Spearman apart from Charley, whose accustom to vendettas, by just how cordial he stays. Duvall in doing so though provides this inspiration of sorts as when he asks others to fight against Baxter, there is something so encouraging in his kindhearted in his manner as he asks everyone to merely do the right thing.
Duvall's work here is so good in just how unassuming yet effective he is in every moment. He creates such a power with such ease, and grace that feels so fitting to Boss Spearman as a character. There is a great scene where Spearman speaks about his long lost family and Duvall again plays it close to the chest yet in his slight smile with just a hint of sadness in the eyes conveys just all those memories that still truly mean so much to him. This gives a later moment all the stronger impact, which is when Spearman tells Charley to give a proper goodbye to the local doctor's sister who holds an obvious attraction to Charley. Again Duvall makes the most of so little offering such poignancy in his stern yet encouraging delivery of the moment. Another scene that is essential to Duvall is as they prepare for the showdown they drop by at the store to buy what are potential final gifts for themselves. There's something so wonderful about how honest and earnest Duvall portrays Spearman as he goes about buying and tasting the finest chocolate the shop has. It basically classic Duvall in a way. Duvall is able to portray the simplicity of the joy of the moment but with that still conveys the idea that it might be his final treat within the way he seems to hold directly onto the joy.
One of my favorite moments though actually is just before the battle where Spearman and Charley tell each other their full names. Duvall is hilarious in portraying Spearman's embarrassment and genuine fear of sorts when he reveals his real first name is Bluebonnet. Although the greater fear at his name being let out, rather than death may seem odd it only seems natural to the character due to Duvall's vivid realization of the man. In the final action scene Duvall never is lost in the scene and still makes an impact in a few very important moments. Duvall throughout the sequence does well actually to show Spearman as less comfortable Charley in the attack, but only in terms of portraying some aversion to the violence though he still conveys that conviction to his code in every moment of it. Duvall keeps Spearman as the purely good figure though in an honest way right to when he prevents Charley from killing one of the wounded men, and brings the needed passion in once again revealing Spearman's devotion to his code. Now this is a performance that you'd expect to be great since it is Robert Duvall in a western, nevertheless it is a great performance no matter what. Duvall's work is a testament to his considerable talent as lives up to every expectation one would have of the man in such a role.