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Cameraman-turned director Aaron Schneider's notable short subject Two Soldiers is from a short story by William Faulkner. Schneider's 2010 feature Get Low evokes much of the appeal of tall tales from the Tennessee hills. A rich character study set in the late 1920s, Chris Provenzano and Scott Seeke's original story was narrowed in focus to concentrate on the unusual funeral preparations for a "crazy old nutter" who has lived as a hermit for the past forty years. Dealing as it does with mostly older rural characters in another time and place, the independently-produced Get Low does not position itself to appeal to a youthful demographic -- although co-star Bill Murray delivers plenty of droll lines the movie is by no means a comedy. It's based on an actual event that happened in Tennessee in 1938.
Cranky hermit Felix Bush (Robert Duvall) is a disliked and feared loner known as the meanest man in the county. When he asks the local preacher (Gerald McRaney) to conduct his funeral service before he dies, Bush isn't taken seriously. Business being what it is, the town undertaker Frank Quinn (Bill Murray) pounces on the opportunity to provide Old Man Bush with whatever odd ceremony he desires. Frank's young assistant Buddy (Lucas Black) isn't sure that a funeral without a dead body is ethical, and is further perplexed when Bush explains that he wants to invite "everybody in four counties" to come and tell all the local legends about him. Frank circulates a poster of Bush looking wild-eyed and ferocious in his long beard; Bush guarantees a big turnout by offering to raffle off his house and acreage with tickets sold at only $5 a pop. Off in the next state, the Reverend Charlie Jackson (Bill Cobbs) shares the hermit's secret but refuses to attend the gala funeral party because Bush won't repent and ask God to forgive him. Bush then bumps into his childhood sweetheart Mattie Darrow (Sissy Spacek). Initially interested in Felix, Mattie grows hostile when she realizes that his mystery has something to do with the death of her sister, long ago.
Get Low achieves a pleasant balance between backwoods drama and a lighter tone indicated by the presence of Bill Murray. Some of his droll lines are obvious laugh cues. Looking meaner than a snake, Felix Bush gets set to have his picture taken. When the photographer asks if perhaps Bush should smile, Frank Quinn's deadpan response is, "That is his smile". But Murray's function is not to provide comic relief, as the film's lighter moments remain firmly character based. Watching Bush get a shave, the younger Buddy remarks that he wouldn't know him without the beard, and Bush is quick to add, "Maybe the Devil won't either."
With his beady deadeye stare, Robert Duvall's Felix frightens kids and takes on a street bully with an axe handle. When the Old Man warms up and his conversations stop sounding like grave threats, the conflict shifts to the Faulkner-like past mystery of a burning house and a vintage photo Felix has hidden in a keepsake box. Mattie's friendly face goes dark when she realizes that Felix may have carried on an affair with her sister, a married woman. Felix must offer his property as an incentive to get his neighbors to attend his pitiful party. His dark secret reminds us somewhat of the Delmer Daves / Gary Cooper western The Hanging Tree, which also deals with a man emotionally crippled by a traumatic personal loss. Like a character in a number of William Faulkner stories, both men were once suspected of arson.
Get Low succeeds by keeping things simple and not overselling the period detail. It evokes a time when an old coot like Felix would have to harness his mule to a wagon to go to town. According to the filmmakers, various subplots were dropped because the story sagged whenever they cut away from the central storyline. More attention was originally spent on a group of local thugs, but all that remains of that are a few bitter words at a card game, and a break-in at the funeral home by vandals searching for the raffle money. Some small kids seen throwing rocks at Bush's cabin also figured more strongly in the story. Other scenes filmed but not used elaborated on Frank Quinn's romantic interest in Mattie. All that remains is a nicely hesitant exchange between the two. Sissy Spacek communicates a sweet, understated awareness of this tension, making this probably her best scene.
The final scenes of public confession and understanding maintain the film's respect for its own characters. Robert Duvall is given plenty of private moments but never begs to be loved. This may be Bill Murray's best performance in a non-starring role, as we stop waiting for him to do something funny and accept his melancholy undertaker for what he is. While actually having little to do, Ms. Spacek glows with an honest good-heartedness, while Alabama-born Lucas Black wins us over as the respectful young man that Old Man Bush most admires and envies. Get Low may conclude like a Southern Gothic tragedy but it also feels warm and unforced.
Sony Pictures Classics' Blu-ray of Get Low is an impeccable transfer of this Georgia-filmed "tall tale", which takes full advantage of the winter colors for symbolic effect. Robert Duvall's character laughs at the idea that his mule will probably outlive him, but it is the landscape that constantly reminds us that the Old Man's time is running out.
A quartet of promotional featurettes covers the production from all angles. On the feature commentary director Schneider and his producer Dean Zanuck discuss acting issues with star Robert Duvall. They talk about the show's short shooting schedule (26 days), the hiring of Bill Murray and how budget realities simplified the concept during the shoot. "The boys" don't allow co-commentator Sissy Spacek much of a chance to contribute, even during her big scenes. Duvall was impressed by his false beard makeup, saying it's the best he's ever worn. Duvall mentions the similar film and stage work of writer Horton Foote, for whom he played a much less lovable backwoodsman back in another William Faulkner adaptation, 1970's Tomorrow.
Get Low earned positive reviews but wasn't a big box office performer, which is understandable because it lacks an exploitable marketing hook -- although it has an impressive cast and a story with a universal appeal, nothing outrageous or scandalous occurs. Complicating matters further, theatrical trailers stressed Bill Murray's punch lines, fatally misrepresenting the show as a comedy about a hillbilly come to town. It's actually one of the more affecting dramas of 2010.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Get Low Blu-ray rates:
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T'was Ever Thus.