For hokum made captivating, it’s hard to beat “Get Low,” a comic drama based on a true tale of a Tennessee recluse who threw himself a funeral party while alive.
The stock Hollywood ingredients used to expand this squiggle of an idea into full-length entertainment hardly deepen one’s regard for the movie come comfy-closure time. But this splendidly acted fable is certainly a personality-rich surprise.
First-time feature director Aaron Schneider, working from a screenplay by Chris Provenzano and C. Gaby Mitchell, plays it conventionally but with folksy charm in this story set in a Depression-era southern town.
Robert Duvall, stratospheric in both folk-legend and damaged-human modes as Felix Bush, supplies juice and gravity.
Felix is a bad-tempered Methuselah who, for 40 years, has lived, self-exiled, in the woods. His companions are a mule, a photo of a woman who will become pivotal, and a shotgun he points at those disobeying his “No Damn Trespassing” sign.
One day, Felix rides into town to arrange his own funeral party, an affair he will attend, alive, so he can hear what folks have to say about him.
Unable to resist Felix’s “hermit money,” almost-decent mortician Frank Quinn (Bill Murray), joined by upright assistant Buddy (Lucas Black), takes the job. “Funeral” preparations include a marketing campaign, a makeover for Felix and raffle-ticket sales.
Soon, Felix reveals that he wants the funeral to be his podium for clearing his conscience over the incident that made him a recluse, and this guilty secret becomes a plot-driving mystery.
Clues come from Mattie Darrow (Sissy Spacek), a widow with whom Felix once “had a go,” and from the Rev. Charlie Jackson (Bill Cobbs), a former friend.
The details, of course, must wait until the funeral climax, and, like the redemption element preceding it, they’re Hollywood clichés.
What saves this film are, first, Schneider’s competence — he keeps things smartly small and creates an absorbing period tone — and, second and foremost, the performances.
Playing both broken soul and crafty “old nutter,” Duvall is stirringly real, displaying old-masterly skill, fresh playfulness and the depth that distinguishes great actors. During Felix’s big speech, he hits emotional notes that seem impossible given the corny material.
Murray and Spacek don’t have the chance to go anywhere truly interesting, and Murray’s drollness conflicts with the prevailing earnestness, but Murray scores amusement points from a screenplay that, in fairness, has moments, and Spacek is graceful and poignant.
All said, shift into escapist gear and go with this one.
Get Low (3 stars)
Starring Robert Duvall, Bill Murray, Sissy Spacek, Lucas Black
Written by Chris Provenzano, C. Gaby Mitchell
Directed by Aaron Schneider
Running time 1 hour 42 minutes