Brian Cox is one of those acting icons who always seems on the verge of rediscovery, and generally one step ahead of the game. Before “Succession” turned him into the face of capitalist greed as media scion Logan Roy, Cox had decades of roles behind, perfecting that unusual balance of gruff delivery and sensitive asides that make him such a delectable screen presence. Cox can’t be typecast because he makes every role fit his type, even as no two performances — from the sneering villain of “X2” to the fearful mortician of “The Autopsy of Jane Doe” — are alike.
“The Etruscan Smile” brings this power into sharp relief. Despite the cadences of a clunky and tired father-son routine, the movie bows to Cox’s entrancing talents in every scene, as he rescues a pedestrian drama through sheer physical prowess, and hints at a quieter soul beneath the surface. While he still plays an overbearing patriarch enacting oppressive demands on his adult son, Cox’s enjoyable turn as a hard-drinking Gaelic countryman exists a world away from the materialism of the Roy family on “Succession”: This time, he’s a man who likes to get his hands dirty, even if it mucks up the lives around him in the process.
Adapted from the novel by Jose Louis Sampredo (who also wrote the screenplay), “The Etruscan Smile” stars Cox as Rory MacNeil, a red-blooded Scotsman who thrives in the awe-inspiring solitude of a Hebridean island, where he wastes his nights away at the pub trading barbs with a lifelong foe. With his health declining, a begrudging Rory heads to San Francisco under the auspices of visiting his estranged son Ian (JJ Feild), when really all he wants is a doctor. While the early scenes of Rory’s insular life provide a hypnotic window into a forgotten world, Rory’s fish-out-of-water experiences quickly sag into familiarity: He’s at first resistant to embracing Ian’s modern life, with his upper-class wife Emily (Thora Birch), and doesn’t know what to make of their infant son.
With time, Rory’s carefree attitude leads to a pileup of trouble, from public intoxication to his son’s embarrassment when the man shows up at a black tie event adorned in a kilt. With time, of course, both men confront their differences and work toward some measure of resolution as Rory comes to terms with his mortality, and…well, you know the drill: The music swells, the bitter old man licks his wounds, and the overwrought sentimentality overpowers the underlying appeal of the aging anti-hero at their center.
Rory’s such a fiery, entertaining presence that “The Etruscan Smile” suffers whenever it drifts away from him, as it does when lingering on the challenges Ian faces as an upscale chef struggling for the approval of his affluent father-in-law. A more appealing subplot finds Rory attempting to seduce a shrewd museum guide (Rosanna Arquette) who sees past his virile armor to discover the gentle man beneath, and brings the cultural value of his Gaelic language to the attention of her superiors.
In the big city, Rory comes across like a dyspeptic time traveler — “The Fisher King” with a penchant for hard liquor — and he’s an endearing figure of dysfunction even when the movie struggles to keep up with him. Cox embraces the opportunity to conjure a growling, inebriated cartoon who threatens to feed a heckler’s liver to the devil and piss on the grave of his lifelong enemy. “They don’t like when you say what you really think about things here,” Ian tells his father, which only makes him more convinced that he should do just that.
“The Etruscan Smile” grows blander as it moves along, with Rory embracing the opportunity to become a grandfather to make up for his piss-poor parenting skills, and directors Oded Binnun and Michael Brezis push the proceedings into every formulaic beat at their disposal. All along, however, Cox remains an appealing variation on the world-weary fighter, an earthy variation on the withered gunslinger John Wayne played in “The Shootist.”
If nothing else, the movie makes a strong case for Cox’s astounding resilience, an ability to take even the most routine gig and deepen its potential. It helps that “The Etruscan Smile” sputters along more than it belly-flops, and stabilizes by the poignant finale. There’s an undeniable beauty to the closing moments, when the movie coalesces around a long take that ends the story with striking economy. Nevertheless, it all comes down to Cox: One face can define a movie or transcend its boundaries; with “The Etruscan Smile,” Cox proves he can do both.
“The Etruscan Smile” is now available at over 50 virtual cinemas online through Film Movement Plus. For more information, go here.