Robert Duvall is an actor who can do stoic Southern characters in his sleep. He has always had a knack for playing the down-home philosopher who chooses his words carefully, and he’s as sturdy and subtle as ever in “Get Low,” a measured drama set in Depression-era Tennessee.
Partially inspired by the true story of a 74-year-old man named Felix ‘Bush’ Brazeale who decided to throw his own ‘funeral party’ in 1938 while he was still alive, “Get Low” sounds like it has the makings of a comedy that’s too quirky for its own good.
Duvall plays Felix Bush, a mysterious old hermit who lives just far enough outside of town that folks rarely ever see him. The local kids sneak onto his property and throw rocks at his windows on a dare just to see if the crazy old coot will come out brandishing a shotgun. He obliges, of course. With a beard that covers 80 percent of his face and clothes that look like they haven’t been washed in years, Felix is about as unapproachable as a man can get.
With Duvall in the role, however, Felix still has a spark of human kindness. He may be a curmudgeon, but it’s almost instantly obvious that whatever he’s done to earn his reputation, it is at least partially misunderstood. The stories the townspeople tell about him sound more like tall tales than anything else.
It is hard to find fault in the first half of “Get Low” as it approximates country life with some beautiful Fall cinematography and a slow, steady pacing. The actors are as comfortable and unforced as ever and they’re given the space and onscreen time to develop their characters naturally.
Bill Murray has just the right mix of snake-oil salesman and sardonic wit as a funeral-home director who is exasperated by the fact that his business—of all businesses— is in a recession too. He admits that he needs some of that “hermit money” to stay afloat, but he doesn’t play the money-hungry bad guy either. Who else can straddle the line between creepy and decent as effectively as Murray?
Both Duvall and Murray are softened by the presence of Buddy (Lucas Black), an earnest young man who has just started a family and hasn’t been hardened to the inequities of a life lived just yet. Buddy is the moral center of this film, and he displays more outward humanity than anyone else in the picture, which balances out Duvall’s crankiness and Murray’s deadpan delivery.
It is a shame that a sideplot with Sissy Spacek—who shines in a small role as the only person who knew Felix when he was young—is a little undercooked. The few scenes she and Duvall share are as composed as they are substantial.
The movie also makes too much of the big mystery at the core of Duvall’s character. The film’s flawless pacing stumbles a bit and the editing doesn’t seem invisible anymore. As it moves towards the big day (and the big reveal) at the end of the film, “Get Low” begins to feel labored. This is all the more noticeable because the first half of the film seems almost effortless.
Ultimately, though, the movie has a lived-in quality that makes it feel authentic, and the actors bring a lifetime of experiences to a story that unfolds with the shadow of death constantly looming. Duvall in particular makes the film’s ultimate message, which is one of forgiveness, go down easy.
It’s amazing what great actors can do if they’re given the chance.