Reviewed by GREG KING
Director: Aaron Schneider
Stars: Robert Duvall, Bill Murray, Lukas Black, Sissy Spacek, Bill Cobbs.
This modest and slyly comic film is based on the true story of a man who staged his own funeral party while he was alive to witness it.
The setting is depression era Tennessee. Felix Burns (Robert Duvall) is a hermit, who for the past forty years has lived as a recluse on his own expansive property on the outskirts of a small town. Because he has rarely ventured into town, a number of rumours and apocryphal stories have circulated about him. “Gossip is the Devil’s radio,” says the local priest, and Felix himself is unconcerned by all the speculation.
When he learns of the death of a man he once knew, Felix decides that it is time for him to set his own house in order. He emerges from his self-imposed exile and rides into town. There he asks the local undertaker Frank Quinn (Bill Murray) to arrange a “living funeral” party for him. The catch is he wants to be there. Anyone who has a story to tell about him is invited to turn up, and the person who tells the best story will inherit his sprawling property.
The financially strapped Quinn is keen to appease Felix, and appoints his assistant Buddy (Lucas Black) as Felix’s unofficial minder in the lead up to the funeral party. Buddy learns more about Felix’s pain and shame in the lead up to the wake. However, it is here that the filmmakers cheat a little, as this possibly interesting aspect of the plot is never really developed. Instead, at the climactic gathering Felix nervously tells the assembled crowd of the reason why he has preferred his solitary life. It is a form of apologia for something terrible that happened all those years earlier. Long kept secrets are revealed, broken hearts are mended, and Felix reveals that he is not the terrifying curmudgeon that everyone has him pegged as. When he delivers his soliloquy it is a deeply affecting and moving speech delivered with all the power that Duvall can harness.
Get Low is the first feature film written by Chris Provenzano (tv series like Mad Men, etc) and C Gaby Mitchell (Fallen Angels, etc) and it has a simple straightforward quality. The film has been sensitively directed by Aaron Schneider (a former cinematographer who worked as second unit dop on Titanic, etc, before winning an Oscar for his own short film Two Soldiers), who makes his feature film debut here. Despite the modest budget, Schneider brings a wonderful sense of time and place to the material. David Boyd’s cinematography is atmospheric, and Geoffrey Kirkland’s production design effectively evokes 1930’s Tennessee. Jan Kaczmarek’s score is evocative and moody.
But it is the solid performances of the ensemble cast that bring life to the material.
In his best role since The Apostle, Duvall shines as the crusty and weathered old recluse, a potentially unsympathetic character, and his performance is tinged with equal parts humanity, pain, melancholy and regret. His role here as a misunderstood loner in a small town also harks back to one of his earliest roles, that of Boo Radley in To Kill A Mockingbird. Get Low is intended as a showpiece for Duvall (who is also credited as one of the producers), and while he is very good, the film belongs to Murray, whose typically droll, deadpan and sarcastic performance gives the film much of its strength. When Murray and Duvall share the screen there is some electricity.
Sissy Spacek also gives solid support as Mattie, a woman who shares a mysterious past with Burns, and who has recently returned to town. The scenes she shares with Duvall are quite touching. And former child star Black brings an appealing innocence and naivety to his performance. Bill Cobbs (Night At The Museum, etc) is also effective as the preacher who knows Felix’s guilty secret but refuses to grant him forgiveness.
While the film deals with some weighty themes like life, love, guilt, redemption and regret, it has a quaint and quirky charm that many will find unexpectedly charming.