In the maelstrom of muck that passes itself as filmmaking today, it is reassuring to come across the occasional gem made by genuine talents who still know how to tell a classic story with coherence and charm. The aura of William Faulkner lingers over Get Low, a chunk of down-home rural Southern folklore based on a real event in 1938, when a Tennessee hermit emerged after decades of hiding in the woods to hear the nearby townsfolk’s opinion of him at a mock funeral. Moving the action back a few years to the Depression, this film, the debut feature by the Oscar-winning cinematographer Aaron Schneider, is a funny and tender retelling of that story, resonating with warmth and sardonic wit and containing a majestic performance by Robert Duvall.
While the acting is uniformly fine, it is the welcome return of Robert Duvall that is worth a special round of applause.
In one of his rare screen appearances of late, the iconic actor plays Felix Bush, a grizzled old recluse who has cut himself off from society for 40 years, after a barn burning that made him a local legend, feared by men and children alike. (Some folks swear he kills his victims with his bare hands.) What a shock when Felix wanders into town one day in battered rags with his shotgun and his mule, his gnarled face buried behind a white beard. Fearing his imminent passing, he decides that “it’s time to get low”-meaning time to make plans for dying, including the purchase of a plot, a casket and a eulogy. This is great news for Frank Quinn (Bill Murray), an undertaker with basset-hound eyes and the doleful owner of a failing funeral parlor, who goes after the business. Better still, his customer envisions a funeral party-one last hurrah that will draw friends and enemies alike to his shack in the woods for the final send-off, provided each guest has a story to tell about him, true or false. Chuckling with mischievous glee, he even decides to sell $5 raffle tickets. The lucky winner will get 300 acres of virgin timber land and a mule named Gracie. This Depression-era come-on draws crowds so big that they set up a tent city to house the turnout. One caveat: The celebration must take place while he is still alive to enjoy it!
From this modest premise comes characters rich with tradition (shades of everything from Tobacco Road to Robert Altman’s McCabe and Mrs. Miller) that extend their lives beyond the limitations of the log cabin settings. The film is enhanced by bluegrass music, and the beautifully composed camera setups serve as exquisite backdrops for a series of keenly calibrated performances. Mr. Murray is both sad and funny as the opportunistic mortician with a well-concealed conscience, and Lucas Black more than holds his own as his young sidekick. Sissy Spacek, always a minimalist, is a touching and terrifically matched counterpart for Mr. Duvall-a still lovely and radiant old flame whose sister’s death in the fire that haunted their lives for so many wasted years forms the mystery at the heart of the film. It takes the whole movie to solve that mystery and discover what Felix did to become his own guilt-ridden jailer for 40 years, but while you wait, you have the rare pleasure of watching two seasoned pros interact with heart and sensitivity. While the acting is uniformly fine, it is the welcome return of Mr. Duvall that is worth a special round of applause. Odd and unpredictable, he perfectly embodies all the qualities of old age-breathing through his sinuses, hobbling left to right like a hobby horse with wheels that need oil, his expressions rising and falling with appropriate awe when he eyes a casket of solid pecan with steel handles and a satin lining or selects with trepidation a new blue suit to be buried in. The nuances with which he demonstrates the value of doing more with less for maximum effect makes every scene an acting lesson. I couldn’t take my eyes off his face. With his mouth open and his tongue poised, it’s like he’s snoring wide awake.
Simple, straightforward and stirring without sentimentality, Get Low is a treasure.
Running time 100 minutes
Written by Chris Provenzano and C. Gaby Mitchell
Directed by Aaron Schneider
Starring Robert Duvall, Sissy Spacek, Bill Murray, Lucas Black
3.5 Eyeballs out of 4
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