Reviewed by Marc Glassman
Aaron Schneider, director
Chris Provenzano & C. Gaby Mitchell, script
Starring: Robert Duvall (Felix Bush), Sissy Spacek (Mattie Darrow), Bill Murray (Frank Quinn), Lucas Black (Buddy Robinson), Gerald McRaney (Horton), Bill Cobbs (Charlie Jackson)
Felix Bush, an ancient Tennessee hermit with an Old Testament beard and a tough Biblical attitude to match, is the kind of character who usually carries the epithet, “he was some kind of a man.” As essayed by the veteran character actor Robert Duvall in the drama Get Low, he practically flaunts his backwoods charisma, shyly confident among the Southern ladies but vividly terrifying to men who taunt him. Duvall plays Bush close to the vest, allowing glimpses of the mysterious sorrow that grips his soul.
Like one of those “high lonesome” ballads that used to cause tears to flow at folk, country and bluegrass concerts, Get Low has a tragic, romantic tale beating at its heart. But the filmmakers and Duvall are smart enough to tease us for most of the movie. What we get is a potted Pilgrim’s Progress as Bush, forty years a loner in the woods, slowly returns to Society before embarking on the journey towards acceptance by the Church.
Luckily, Frank Quinn, a wily Chicago-born funeral-home director, facilitates Felix’s route to Heaven. In a role that Bill Murray was born to play, he embodies a conman who has, against all odds, gone straight. Living a life of quiet desperation, he lets you see what it’s like to be a struggling businessman during the Great Depression. His deadpan charm is played off of the hillbilly reticence of Bush in the film’s most lively scenes. When the wealthy Bush demands to stage a funeral while still alive, Quinn’s reply is perfect: “hoo boy, have you come to the right place.”
The living funeral is at the heart of Get Low’s matter. The film was inspired by a real-life Tennessee hillbilly bachelor named Felix Brazeale, who caused a sensation in the US in the Depression when he staged his own send-off, complete with casket and sermon. Of course Brazeale played it for fun and had his 15 minutes of fame, years before Warhol came up with the phrase.
The filmmakers of Get Low have bigger fish to fry, which is a pity. Slowly, through scenes with Sissy Spacek as ex-girlfriend Mattie Darrow, Lucas Black as nice-guy funeral assistant Buddy Robinson and most impressively, Bill Cobbs as African-American preacher Charlie Jackson, we find out that Duvall has to reveal his secret before he can reach salvation.
Fair enough, but why do it in front of a crowd of revelers, lured to Felix Bush’s funeral by a raffle that will give his land to a lucky winner? It allows for the requisite grand scene where Duvall gets to deliver an impassioned monologue in front of a multitude of listeners, who are moved by his speech. But what does his private sorrow have to do with them? And why tell your sad tale so publically after four decades of silence?
Despite this major flaw, Get Low is still worth seeing for Duvall’s brilliant performance—and Spacek’s and Murray’s. Expect them all to be nominated for Oscars next winter. And may I say it? Bill Murray could win the Best Supporting Actor Award for his performance as Frank Quinn.