3 out of 4 stars
Starring: Robert Duvall, Sissy Spacek, Bill Murray and Lucas Black.
No matter where you live, it seems like there’s a crotchety old man who makes everyone live in fear.
But, as the curmudgeon of “Get Low” proves, there are two sides to every story.
In 1930s Tennessee, Felix Bush (Robert Duvall) is a social outcast.
With a nickname like “The Mysterious Hermit of Caleb County,” you’d hardly expect him to be popular, but he has lived in isolation in a forest shack for more than 40 years, leaving people in all the surrounding towns to gossip about just why he has separated himself from society.
Felix couldn’t care less about the rumors floating around about him, most of which involve unspeakable deeds. All he needs is his land, his shack and his mule — until he starts to take stock of his life and realizes that he’s about at the end of it.
It’s almost time for him to “get low,” specifically six feet underground.
But, in planning for his death, Felix has an idea that’s a little unorthodox: He wants to host a “funeral party,” a get-together in which those who attend are encouraged to recollect the legends about the man of the hour, the difference being that he’ll be alive to hear them.
The operators of the local funeral parlor (Bill Murray, Lucas Black) are willing to do anything for him as long as the price is right, but arranging a funeral like this is without precedent, and Felix is no help, especially after he comes back into contact with an old flame (Sissy Spacek) who evokes a mother lode of memories — some wonderful, some unbearable.
Duvall is perfect as Felix, an ideal role for an actor in his golden years, a humorless old coot whose mere quirky attitude and inability to function around people has made him as much of a tall tale as Paul Bunyan or Johnny Appleseed, on a regional level.
The fact that this geezer intends to raffle off his property for $5 is telling enough, but the seasoned actor breathes plenty of life into his bittersweet character, making Felix a venerable and vivacious presence, in spite of those who can’t wait to see him kick the bucket.
Speaking of death, if there’s anybody you can count on to make the subject funny, it’s Murray, who’s in top form as Frank Quinn, a veteran salesman of all things — most recently caskets — who bemoans the sad truth, that people just aren’t dying fast enough, much to the mortification of his much more moral assistant, Buddy Robinson, played with humble, small-town charm by Black.
Spacek is sweet and steadfast as Mattie, one of the few people around who actually knew Felix before he became a recluse and somehow still wants to know him.
Character actor Bill Cobbs gives us another perspective as a country preacher who still considers Felix a friend, but believes he still owes a good deal of penance for his past misdeeds.
There’s a quiet dignity about this directorial debut from cinematographer Aaron Schneider. Sure, the haunting score by versatile musical composer Jan A.P. Kaczmarek augments the rich atmosphere of backwoods Tennessee, but the look of the rustic setting and the folks who dwell within are the film’s selling points, critical in this tale of being condemned to damnation in one’s own community.
Understanding Felix’s self-imposed exile isn’t much of a task, but it’s the way Duvall wears the years of seclusion on his face that makes the character someone worthy of interest. Combined with a supporting cast made up of people who know the value of silence when they’re in front of the camera, it makes for a fine show, worthy of a stirring eulogy.
“Get Low” is a movie that performs the delicate maneuver of blending the solemn with the humorous, and makes it look easy.
The year’s earlier “Death at a Funeral” could take notes in how it’s done. Though they may be two different kinds of comedies, there’s little doubt as to which of them should be buried and forgotten about.