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Felix Bush has lived alone on a mountaintop for more than four decades. Long enough for horseless carriages to become popular and his mule-drawn cart to be an anachronism when he goes into town. His presence inspires fear and whispers. Felix is the town boogeyman, and kids sneak onto his farm to catch a glimpse of the legendary monster that lives there.
Of course, Felix is not a monster. As someone says in the movie, "There are two sides to every story," and though Felix responds that this is a fallacy, that there is the side that each person believes and there is no other as far as they are concerned, the new film Get Low stands as a refutation of its main character's own philosophy. Robert Duvall plays Felix, and the 79-year-old actor adds another marvelous performance to an unparalleled career. While other actors of his generation have been showing up just for the paycheck for a while now, Duvall continues to seek out new and interesting roles. There is such a thing as aging gracefully in Hollywood after all.
Get Low is based in part on a true story about a hermit who emerged from his exile in the 1930s to host his own funeral. The film finds Felix as he nears the end, and news of an old friend's death inspires him to take stock. Though his idea seems crazy at first, the local funeral director, Frank Quinn (an alternately charming and heartfelt Bill Murray), sees an opportunity to turn his ailing business around. Felix is suspicious, but he takes a shine to Frank's assistant, a humble and straight-talking family man named, appropriately enough, Buddy (Lucas Black). Together they plan Felix's "funeral party," a come-one, come-all event where the price of admission is a story you've heard about the to-be deceased.
Except the actual plan is not as simple as it sounds. Something is chewing at Felix and has been since he locked himself away. For forty years, he has been holding a secret, and it grows increasingly obvious that this whole scenario is really for him to clear the air. But is the true Mr. Hyde lurking on that mountain a manipulative codger who maybe deserves what he gets? An old flame (Sissy Spacek) and a preacher (Bill Cobbs) who knows his secret seem to think so. There is a mystery here. Or maybe the riddle in the form of a man.
Get Low is directed and edited by cinematographer Aaron Schneider (Kiss the Girls), working from a screenplay by Chris Provenzano and C. Gaby Mitchell. Its pitch lies somewhere between a black comedy and a drama, a place similar to how Felix describes himself, neither living nor dead, but some fascinating state of being in between. On one side is the wry sarcasm of Bill Murray, on the other the sadness in Sissy Spacek's eyes. The surprising thing is how both ends of the spectrum are informed by grief, and how frank Schneider's portrayal of old age can be. There is an obvious contrast to be drawn between the older folk and Buddy. It's the younger who keeps making declarations about how things can or cannot be done, while his elders know far too well how rules and morality are not so cut and dried.
It's all very slyly done, and the filmmakers avoid making anything in Get Low overly comical or emotionally obvious. There would have been a lot of room for slapstick, to turn the film into Grumpy Old Hermits and make a fool out of Felix. Instead, Duvall portrays the old coot as if every breath counts--sometimes so convincingly you practically fear for the actor's life. He could have given everyone on set a heart attack had he decided to prank them and keel over. Would've made for a hell of a DVD extra, to say the very least.
People who knew Felix hint throughout the movie that he's got some special skills himself, and for once a movie about a character with hidden specialties actually pays off in its reveal. I teared up when Felix finally came clean, and it's nice to see Schneider have enough trust in his actor, keeping the frame tight on Robert Duvall's face and letting him work his magic. Or maybe that's just where the performer and the page meet, the right kind of actor for the right kind of part. Getting low means getting down to serious business, and the entire party of Get Low is built on some serious storytelling skills. From the subtly moody photography all the way to the underplayed music, this is filmmaking in service to the narrative, free of unnecessary stylistic conceits or flashy distractions. Get Low hearkens back to classic Americana, yet it evokes the past with genuine sentiment rather than contrived sentimentality. Serious business, indeed.
Jamie S. Rich is a novelist and comic book writer. He is best known for his collaborations with Joelle Jones, including the hardboiled crime comic book You Have Killed Me, the challenging romance 12 Reasons Why I Love Her, and the 2007 prose novel Have You Seen the Horizon Lately?, for which Jones did the cover. All three were published by Oni Press. His most recent projects include the futuristic romance A Boy and a Girl with Natalie Nourigat; Archer Coe and the Thousand Natural Shocks, a loopy crime tale drawn by Dan Christensen; and the horror miniseries Madame Frankenstein, a collaboration with Megan Levens. Follow Rich's blog at Confessions123.com.