“Get Low,” the directorial debut of cinematographer Aaron Schneider is as breezily gentle as its quaint 1930s Appalachian setting and crackly bluegrass score. The ever-so-slight story, in which a Tennessee backwoods hermit (Robert Duvall) arranges his own “funeral party,” takes awhile to get moving; at times, the movie is molasses-paced, and the potential loopy energy of the premise begins to flag.
But generally, “Get Low” ambles along gracefully, thanks to Duvall’s quietly commanding performance, stellar supporting work from Bill Murray, Sissy Spacek and Lucas Black, and a winning screenplay by Chris Provenzano and C. Gaby Mitchell.
If the outrageousness of its plot categorizes “Get Low” as somewhat of a one-joke farce, it’s nonetheless one of the most relaxed, low-key farces of recent memory.
The film opens with a faraway shot of a country house burning down, and several flaming persons emerging from it. Though there’s no narrative explanation, the audience knows in the next scene that Felix Bush (Duvall) was in some way involved, either as an arsonist or as a victim. When we first see the old loner, Felix appears less wise than wizened, a taciturn, wood-chopping Paul Bunyan sort, his fierce face shrouded by a greying, three-foot-thick beard.
Haunted by a past that has left him perpetually isolated from his community, most of whom despise or fear him, Felix decides to redeem himself by throwing his own funeral. It’ll be a party, he proposes to local funeral parlor director Frank Quinn (Murray), and old friends and foes alike can attend and share wild stories about him. The catch? He’s going to be present at this “funeral,” to set folks straight about his mythical past and tell the truth.
Frank and his family-man underling Buddy (Black) are understandably baffled. But with Buddy’s newborn baby and Frank’s down-on-his-luck venality, both need or want any money they can get, and Felix is promising them a boatload of cash for their services. Further fueling Felix’s redemption are two pivotal figures from the past: his old flame Mattie (Spacek), whom he betrayed via an affair with Mattie’s now-deceased sister; and the Reverend Charlie Jackson (the hilarious character actor Bill Cobbs), who’s hesitant to preside over a sinner’s not-quite-funeral.
Duvall is a marvel to watch, flawlessly merging his character’s conflicting stoicism, fear and sadness. He registers like a stubborn, weary grandfather that won’t play with his grandkids but nonetheless wants to; the kindhearted glint in his mournful eyes never goes dark. Spacek is truly heartbreaking, playing a tortured woman equally willing to forgive Duvall for his misdoings as she is hellbent on seeing his comeuppance.
But the real joy in “Get Low” comes from Murray. The first thing we notice about him is that warped, crooked smile, which has been dormant on-screen for far too long. Cast wickedly against type, ten or so years ago, in Wes Anderson’s dark comedy “Rushmore,” Murray was effortlessly hilarious as a frowning, self-loathing loner, and he ran away with the film. Unfortunately, his gear-shifting proved too successful: after a slew of consecutive films playing similarly enervated roles, his on-screen persona as a depressed lout seemed permanently cemented.
Happily, Murray is back in high-spirited wise-guy form in “Get Low.” His character here may be a sarcastic, troubled alcoholic—after all, he works on funerals—but he’s a far cry from the stylized mopes Anderson, Jim Jarmusch and others have him play. Just watching him sincerely apologize—twice, to a young mother and then her infant son—after an accidental slip of the tongue, we know the rascally Bill Murray, the feisty scamp we were so enamored with in “Groundhog Day” and “What About Bob?” is back from the dead.
“Get Low” hits theatres this week.
[this review previously ran during TFF’10]