Many who have lived in a reasonably-populated area have experienced the "kook on a hill", with rumors and legends scuttling about how they arrived at their current state. It leads to scornful eyes and social shirking that follow whenever they turn up, often created by mean-spirited hearsay. Get Low, first-timer Aaron Schneider's melancholy little comedy-drama, guides us back to Tennessee in the '30s when these small-town yarns spanned counties instead of around the neighborhood, with a tattered old hermit named Felix (Robert Duvall) shooing folks off his country property with a shotgun and a smirk. Stories circulate about why he's holed up in his weathered cabin, with nobody but his donkey to keep him company; the film's tonal versatility comes in how the story uses this folklore -- and the old man's awareness of it -- as both a mouthpiece for humor and an easygoing, artfully-shot medium for soul-searching.
See, Felix has started feeling the weight of his age. He figures it's close to time for him to "get low" as his health begins to deteriorate, and he uses the opportunity to look his isolation square in the eyes. With a fistful of sweaty cash, he goes into town -- a place where rumors of his violent, murderous nature circulate -- and starts to make arrangements for his passing. Only Felix wants a pre-death "party" instead of a funeral, where he's inviting everyone within earshot to tell whatever stories they've heard about him. Struggling funeral parlor owner Frank Quinn (Bill Murray) and his eager down-home assistant Buddy (Lucas Black) scramble to fulfill the arrangements, with Felix trying everything under the sun to get as many people in attendance as possible. But why does a hermit who's lived away from society for roughly 40 years really want to get everyone together for, in essence, a public flogging?
Chris Provenzano and C. Gaby Mitchell wrote the script for Get Low with a real-life hermit from 1930s Tennessee as a template, and the well-aged scaffolding supporting the story is as sturdy as it is windswept. Felix harbors a secret that few, if any are aware of, obviously tying to his hermetic lifestyle. Even though the progression to its reveal creaks with familiarity, his stand-offish state becomes a convincing backbone to the rustic, tonally modest film, using both the humorous "how" and the meditative "why" behind his funeral party for a sharp blend of wit and authenticity. The key here comes in Schneider's awareness of the film's thresholds; he never bloats Felix's kooky old-timer curio or the macabre chuckles behind mortality and funerals, while rearing back from overt drama until the time's right. His direction renders a quiet and amusing glimpse into grief and reflection, shaping a welcoming environment for the old, bitter man to thaw his icy exterior.
Felix Bush embodies nearly every stereotype befitting the cranky old woodland hermit, from the "No Damn Trespassers" sign staked at the front of his home to culinary prowess in using what's around his cabin. But Duvall brings a gripping vintage soul to the character that only he can, an air of complexity to Felix's serrated outlook that's at ease in the actor's skin (see The Road and Open Range for recent similarly-held versions). There's an introspective profundity to Felix that fits Duvall like a worn pair of overalls, containing both vulnerability and gnarled cynicism. When he interacts with Mattie (Sissy Spacek), a woman with whom he shares a history before his days of isolation, the two tell a story on their own that hints at the point when Felix shifted from a common man to one of ardent reclusion. Get Low has a knack for communicating the past through restrained implication instead of description, which lends solemn endearment to the slow reveal of Felix's Pandora's Box.
Alongside, our attention refocuses on Frank Quinn's almost deadpan antics as he scrambles to clean Felix up for his party, print up posters that tout the ragged hermit's crazy notion for a funeral party, and convince his client that he's making the right choice with his fistful of post-mortem currency. Bill Murray perfectly fits the mold of a slippery funeral parlor owner, latching onto his signature subdued wit and nonverbal mannerisms to create Frank, unmatched by even Steve Zissou or Broken Flowers' Don Johnston in his smarmy appeal. His eureka moment when he realizes the lucrative potential behind Felix's soirée got a hearty laugh out of me, becoming the ignition point where the film's comedic temperament really begins communicating. Murray's pessimistic quirk becomes the stamina behind the film's humor, bouncing off of Duvall's oaken gloom for its punchier, memorable moments.
While Schneider trots through Frank's snaky smooth-talking and Buddy's doe-eyed romanticism, the mannerisms Felix forces through his clenched teeth and wooly beard consistently hint at a man who's ready to unburden himself. And, to Get Low's success, we actually want him to; each moment we see the thin, misanthropic recluse fill a room in a manner unbefitting his small frame, our curiosity deepens with our developing compassion. Based on the opening, we've got a hint about what his secrets might entail, yet the build-up to his funeral party becomes a deeply-felt journey nevertheless. It's a film that slowly lures in our sincere interest, charming with its crowd-pleasing swirl of chuckles and contemplative tenderness, while the weight of Felix's rumor-negating reveal -- paired with a scene boasting every ounce of Duvall's acting prowess -- telegraphs a duly-earned emotional punch at the end.
Video and Audio:
Get Low looks absolutely stunning in Sony's 2.35:1 1080p AVC encode, capturing the Georgia-shot locations with the right level of rustic texture and earthy appeal that hallmarks the film itself. Close-ups showcase exactly how adept this disc can be; details in Duvall's weathered face are often crisp and clean, with the stray strands of his hair and the texture of his clothing leaping from the image. Contrast errs towards rich and velvety yet adept at grasping some of the minor details in Felix's dark cabin, while it nimbly handles fluctuating browns in woodwork, the glow of amber liquor, billows of smoke, and the crystalline fluctuations in glassware. The costume work, however, benefits the highly-detailed image best, with the unique '30s-inspired patterns and the heavily-textured garments appearing robust. It's a beautiful rendering of a deceptive image that's very easygoing about its dense minute details.
The DTS HD Master Audio track also has a deceptive task ahead of it, as there's more ornate sound design present in Get Low than one might take at face value. Sound elements like the echo of a rifle and the rustle of outdoors movements moves from the front to the rear of the sound design on numerous occasions, poised brilliantly in this high-definition aural presentation, while the crispness of the bluegrass music stretches to the same extremities with immense clarity. Duvall's grunts and subtle quips remain highly audible and properly balanced to the lower-frequency, as does Bill Murray's somewhat booming voice as Frank. But the disc also shows an exquisite grasp on silence, allowing very faint sound elements to poke through during the numerous quiet sequences. It's an exquisite high-resolution sound effort. English , English SDH, French, and Spanish subtitle options are available, along with English and French Stereo tracks.
Audio Commentary with Director Schneider, Robert Duvall, Sissy Spacek and Producer Dean Zanuck:
The foursome gets together for a conversational commentary track, where they glaze over stories about the film's reception at festivals and their impressions on some of the line delivery. Schneider and producer Zanuck sneak in bursts of filmmaker insight, such as the reason why they needed to get another take of a particular scene due to some animal activity and how the film gravitates towards Felix's story -- and how that caused some of the scenes, especially the poker scene, to be trimmed. They discuss how Bill Murray lightened the mood during the first day of shooting, the difficulty behind photographing the gorgeous church late in the film, how Schneider and his crew knew that the actors were the ones "driving the boat", and how they wedged in an homage to cinematographer Gordon Willis. It has moments where the momentum slumps, but the content -- in turn anecdotal and chatty -- is worth a listen.
The Deep South: Buried Secrets (7:40, HD MPEG-2):
Though short, this glimpse into Get Low has plenty to offer in its brief time. It covers how the film has a tonal balance that isn't as readily appealing as other comedy-dramas, a "worn book" feel that makes its warmth worth the time. They lightly touch on the truth behind Felix Bush's story, how meaty storytelling allures high-profile actors, and how piecing the film together was like assembling a building. Shots from the film liberally splice into interview with with Schneider, Zanuch, and writer C. Gaby Mitchell, coming together into a compact but nice little studio featurette.
Getting Low: Getting Into Character (9:29, HD MPEG-2):
Similarly structured to The Deep South, mixing interviews and footage from the film, this piece on Duvall's engrossing process reveals how the filmmakers eyes the director from the get-go due to his previous successes in similar roles. Though it focuses mostly on Duvall, the piece also diverts attention to Sissy Spacek's character and how she "opens windows" to Felix's disposition. Lewis Black also hops into the interview chair to talk about the connection that builds between his character buddy and the old hermit. On top of that, the always-intriguing Bill Murray takes the opportunity to hop in the interviewee's chair, while the ocntent reflects on his "different take every time" approach to acting. This piece falls more into plot-following fluff, yet the interviews are still predictably interesting to watch.
A Screenwriter's Point of View (5:08, HD MPEG-2):
C. Gaby Mitchell discusses his experience in writing the screenplay, about how Duvall's interest in the part actually became the reason why he came aboard the project. He also discusses his writing process, and how his Alabama roots tied into the characters. He also discusses his interest in Felix's isolation appeals to him as a writer, while he mixes a not-so-old direction of writing inside a period piece, as well as his deep emotional connection with writing the grief within his character.
Also available are the Cast/Crew Q&A (9:25, HD MPEG-2) that took place at the Tribeca Film Festival (along with some red carpet footage beforehand), an actual On the Red Carpet (4:23, SD MPEG-2) piece that says a lot of the same things as the Cast/Crew Q&A, and the excellent original Theatrical Trailer (2:05, HD MPEG-2) that sparked my initial interest with the picture. The disc also comes enabled with BD-Live connectivity, which shows some promotional materials in the upper-right corner of the disc's menu when linked up via Internet.
From the rustic -shot Georgia locations and the bluegrass musical backdrop to the quaint, pleasing dialogue that bumps through the proverbial story, there's nothing about Get Low that feels out of placed or forced from beginning to end, cementing a first-rate turnout from freshman director Aaron Schneider. Exquisite turns from the entire cast, especially Robert Duvall and Bill Murray, shape this quaint comedy-drama into a delightful look at the shaping of tall tales and the ways men deal with grief. Crafted more for enjoyment than insight, the restrained mix of humor and drama makes it a unique experience that, from start to finish, hits an eloquent stride that I found utterly charming. Sony's Blu-ray presents the robust cinematography and Southern-rooted sound design exceptionally, as well as presenting a few standard-but-serviceable studio features and a nice commentary, making both the film and this high-definition presentation Highly Recommended.