In the distance, a farmhouse is ablaze and a man jumps or is hurled out the second story window. He tries to re-enter the house on the ground floor but the flames push him back. He rushes off and disappears into the night.
This is the recurring nightmare of Felix Bush (Robert Duvall), a master carpenter, who’s been living alone for 40 years in self-imposed exile in a cabin in the Georgia woods. He keeps a tidy house, loves his mule and makes sure his “No Damn Trespassing” sign is big and easy to see. It’s the 1930s and while the Depression affects everyone in town, the self-sufficient Bush is immune to its economic troubles. Owning 300 acres of virgin timberland, he probably never worries about money anyway.
Learning of the death of an old friend, Felix decides he should reconcile his life before he dies rather than from the hereafter. For four decades he’s been the object of gossip, kids throwing stones through his windows, tales of his ornery and strange behavior edging him into legendary status. Now he wants to “get low” with a big funeral party. He wants to invite everybody in town to tell their story of him. And add music and dancing to produce an unforgettable celebration of the life of the man that none of them have ever known. When Mattie (Sissy Spacek), an old sweetheart, returns to town after her husband’s death, memories of the past, for both of them, come into keen focus.
Felix slaps of wad of bills on the desk and hires oily funeral salesman Frank Quinn (Bill Murray) and his kind-hearted assistant Buddy (Lukas Black) to carry out his instructions. One awkward step at a time, one reluctant sentence at a time, Felix is forced to end his years of silence and trying to communicate with the two men–and the growing publicity that his funeral plans create. Soon, his funeral party is the biggest event in four counties. Quinn manages to convince Rev. Charlie Jackson (Bill Cobbs), Felix’s old friend, to give the eulogy. At the party, the crowed doesn’t hear the stories about Felix that they all wanted to hear. Instead Felix tells his story.
Part folklore, part fable, based on a real story, Get Low often reaches mythic proportions, a feat rarely attained by a first-time director (Aaron Schneider). The cinematography is gorgeous and inviting, shot in candlelight and warm earth tones that give great dignity to what otherwise could be the poor, ramshackle tone of Appalachian poverty. The costumes, props and settings all deserve special mention–rarely have the 30s come so alive in a color film. The script, though plagued with a big hole or two, and an ending that goes on too long, is awesomely literate and lean.
Most exhilarating are the performances. Duvall, always mesmerizing, is in top form as a character that even “God finds entertaining to watch, but too much trouble.” Spacek is lovely and heartbreaking, in her best role in ages. Lukas Black, often dismissed because he’s so average-looking, does a yeoman’s job as Bush’s chosen companion. More watchable than usual, Bill Murray proves he is as fine an actor as he is a comic and his depiction of a man crying underneath his salesman’s bravado is exquisite.
A small film with grand goals, Get Low is an honorable debut for the young director, Aaron Schneider, and a delight for the fans of the older actors. It won’t be around for very long so be sure to catch it as soon as possible.