Texan playwright and screenwriter Horton Foote was involved with two of Robert Duvall’s most important acting performances, his early breakthrough appearance as mysterious recluse Boo Radley in To Kill a Mockingbird (1962) and his Oscar-winning portrayal of faded country singer Mac Sledge in Tender Mercies (1983). Between those projects, the duo collaborated on Tomorrow, the screenplay for which Foote adapted from the William Faulkner story of the same name. It’s a minor piece, rightfully overshadowed by Duvall’s mainstream films of the same era, notably The Godfather (1971). Still, those who respect Duvall’s extraordinary talent and Foote’s homespun poetry can find much to appreciate here, because Tomorrow is a sincere character study exploring the repercussions of a simple man’s clumsy attempt at forming a human connection with a stranger.
Shot in black and white and mostly set in and around a ramshackle sawmill that’s inactive during the off season, the picture betrays its theatrical origins—Foote’s first adaptation of the Faulker story was a play, which he expanded into the script for this project—and some viewers will find the experience of watching Tomorrow claustrophobic and dull. The characters in this piece are plain rural folks, and Duvall plays a man who mostly communicates through physical actions, drawling his sparse lines in a guttural monotone whenever he actually speaks. Yet while the accoutrements of the piece are specific, the themes are universal.
Duvall plays Jackson Fentry, a man who has rarely ventured beyond his father’s farm until he takes a job as the winter caretaker for a sawmill located deep inside a thick forest. Claiming he doesn’t mind the prospect of spending months by himself in the woods, he’s in fact painfully lonely, so he welcomes the surprising arrival of Sarah Eubanks (Olga Bellin), a young pregnant woman who stumbles upon the mill one day. Abandoned by her husband and shunned by her parents, she’s even more alone in the world than Jackson. He provides shelter, and over the weeks preceding the arrival of her baby, they bond. Jackson proposes marriage, despite knowing that Sarah already has a husband somewhere. Thereafter, fate intervenes in cruel ways.
The intimate scenes work best, with Duvall’s repressed primitivism balancing Bellin’s vulnerability and warmth—she comes across like a backwoods Blythe Danner. Scenes involving outsiders are almost as effective, because Foote articulates how Jackson tries to protect his newfound love, only to get harsh reminders of his powerlessness. The wraparound bits framing the story have less impact, and probably could have been discarded entirely, especially since they add another layer of sadness to a story that’s already downbeat. If only because Duvall is in nearly every scene, anchoring the film with intensity and emotional truthfulness, Tomorrow merits consideration as one of his key films, but it’s not for everyone.