Ernest Borgnine was 94 when he made “The Man Who Shook the Hand of Vicente Fernandez,” the final feature he completed before his death earlier this year. Yet the Oscar-winning actor appears remarkably hearty throughout this slight but affecting indie drama, even while playing an aged semi-invalid who rouses himself to defend exploited Hispanic workers at the assisted-care facility where he’s recuperating. It’s hard to say whether the pic would have as much emotional impact if it weren’t Borgnine’s swan song, but it’s easy to see how it could appeal to auds during limited theatrical and long-term homescreen play.
Borgnine is perfectly cast as Rex Page, a retired radio DJ who once dreamed of becoming a Western movie hero, and who’s still haunted by his failure to win the lead role in a low-rent oater decades ago. Although that disappointment has left him feeling in his golden years less like a has-been than a never-was, Rex nonetheless remains hopeful he might yet land a role, any role, in some sagebrush saga. Indeed, he continues to spend most of his free time watching and rewatching a worn VHS copy of “A Good Man Killed Bad,” the Western he once had a shot at starring in.
Unfortunately, when his agent finally does call with news of a possible audition, Rex is at Rancho Park, a nursing home operated by a corrupt old curmudgeon (Barry Corbin) and a slimy nurse-harassing doctor (Tony Plana), where he’s recovering from a back injury. At first, Rex — not exactly a racist, but close enough to make little difference — wants little to do with the facility’s overworked and underpaid Hispanic staff. But the workers view Rex as a celebrity because he long ago met, and shook hands with, Mexican entertainment icon Vicente Fernandez. Basking in their respectful admiration, Rex eventually stands up to the nursing home’s owner and doctor, because, well, a man’s got to do what a man’s got to do.
Writer-director Elia Petridis playfully presents stretches of his pic as a faux spaghetti Western, with motorized scooters standing in for horses, Corbin and Plana hamming it up as dastardly villains, and Ruy Folguera providing a humorously melodramatic, Ennio Morricone-style musical score. But Borgnine’s robust performance keeps the pic grounded in a melancholy reality of frustrated dreams, bitter resentments and last-chance opportunities for redemption, and the final scenes achieve a poignancy capable of wringing tears even from viewers normally immune to the tugging of heartstrings.
Standout supporting players include June Squibb as Rex’s long-suffering wife, Dale Dickey (“Winter’s Bone”) as his irate daughter, and Arturro Del Puerto as a dedicated nurse who makes Alex regret his racially insensitive remarks.