Reviewed at the 2010 Tribeca Film Festival
Robert Duvall gets one of the best entrances of his career in Aaron Schneider's Get Low. He's chasing (with a shotgun, no less) one of the many young boys who throws rocks and runs from his remote cabin in the woods; he's first seen only in flashes--a hand on his gun, his feet on the ground. He chases the boy into his barn, where he's seen only in silhouette--and then he steps into the light, revealing the scraggly hair and beard of a Confederate general. (It's a moment that also subconsciously recalls Duvall's reveal in his film debut, To Kill a Mockingbird, in which he also played an object of derision in a small Southern town.) It's a wonderfully prepared entrance, and confirms what we're hoping for--Duvall old-cooting it up in a Southern Gothic tale. What it doesn't hint at is the depths of the film, the emotional power that its closing scenes will pack. I like movies that catch you off-guard like this one does.
Duvall plays Felix Bush, a hermit who has lived in a self-imposed exile in the Tennessee woods for the better part of 40 years. His only friend is his mule; when he goes into town, he's likely to start a fight (and win). But he's feeling mortal these days, so he goes into town to ask the preacher (Gerald McRaney) to help him make preemptive funeral arrangements. The preacher's not much help, but Buddy (Lucas Black), who works at the local funeral home, overhears the conversation, and tells his boss Frank (Bill Murray) about it. The pair visits Felix and offers their services. He explains what he wants--to throw a big "funeral party" before his death, so that he can attend. He wants to hear the stories that everyone thinks are true--and tell a few of his own.
Schneider's direction is loose but involving--he's not in a hurry, but doesn't bore the audience either, keeping a deliberate but steady pace. The screenplay by Chris Provenzano and C. Gaby Mitchell (from a story by Provenzano and Scott Seeke) has some funny bits--like Murray's piqued interest in Duvall's "hermit money" or the scene where he takes Duvall to get a promotional picture taken (when the photographer asks, "Do you want him to smile?", a bemused Murray replies, "That is his smile")--and is full of warm little throwaway moments, like the way Black interacts with his baby when his wife is in a foul mood. Most impressively, they manage to make the increasingly tiresome device of the gradually-revealed flashback (the film opens with the image of a burning home and a fleeing figure, and it's not explained until Duvall's big scene at the end) not only play, but play beautifully.
Duvall continues to amaze me; he's reached that magical age for an older actor, where they've been doing it so long, it becomes second nature. His lantern-lit chat with Sissy Spacek is so off-hand, yet so absorbing--you can't catch either of them "acting." And he's absolutely unafraid to underplay, as in the uncomfortable scene with McRaney's preacher, which he basically harrumphs and grunts his way through. But he's never at a loss for words, and when he tells his friend Reverend Charlie (the wonderful Bill Cobbs) that "I built my own jail and put myself in it, and stayed in it for 40 goddamned years," he burns with bitterness, anger, pain. Murray's medicine-man dialogue patterns, meanwhile, mesh perfectly with Duvall's guttoral tones. Murray is funny here, but in a legitimate and unselfish way--he's never funny outside of the character, nor does he merely transform Frank Quinn into a "Bill Murray type." And though it's mostly a comic role, he doesn't blink when the script puts him eye-to-eye with Duvall. It's a disciplined, fully realized piece of work. Complimenting them both, Lucas Black (who I still think of as the kid in Sling Blade) continues to develop into a fine actor, full-faced and handsome, his distinctive accent still one of his best qualities.
Get Low's many fine elements--those down-to-the-bone performances, the rustic photography, the jangly yet mournful score--come together masterfully in its closing scenes, the funeral party itself. There's a moment towards the end where Duvall looks at himself in the mirror intensely, the images layering and rotating on the screen as they do in his mind, and then he walks out in front of the town and tells them his deepest, darkest secret. It's an extraordinary scene, and Duvall holds the audience in spellbound silence. This is an actor. And Get Low is one of his finest hours.
Jason lives with his wife Rebekah and their daughter Lucy in New York. He holds an MA in Cultural Reporting and Criticism from NYU. He is film editor for Flavorwire and is a contributor to Salon, the Atlantic, and several other publications. His first book, Pulp Fiction: The Complete History of Quentin Tarantino's Masterpiece, was released last fall by Voyageur Press. He blogs at Fourth Row Center and is yet another critic with a Twitter feed.