Sometimes quirky works. So it is for Aaron Schneider in “Get Low,” his feature film directorial debut. Unfortunately for auds, “Get Low” is getting only limited US release beginning July 30 — almost a year after its bow at the Toronto Film Festival. This is the picture “Winter’s Bone” could have been if anyone working on it had a sense of humor. It will end up as an art-house feature stateside, but it should work wonders for Schneider’s nascent career.
What sets “Get Low” apart from typical indie fare is a fantastic cast of household names from back in the day, tight writing, economical editing (Schneider also gets editing credit), and a firm hand at the throttle. What holds it back is an over-reliance on the owners of perfectly restored Model A Fords.
Pic, set about 1930, stars Robert Duvall as Felix Bush, an aging, noted Tennessee hermit largely hated by the residents of his nearby town. Bush has a guilty secret. His revelation thereof provides pic’s action, and it is a credit to writers Chris Provenzano (screenplay) (story), C. Gaby Mitchell (screenplay), and Scott Seeke (story) that stretching it out over 100 minutes does not detract from the suspense. Instead they tease auds with shreds of revelation the way some tantalize a hungry dog with a series of Milk-Bones. Exposition is woven seamlessly into the plot. The only knock on this score is a slow-moving opening reel featuring a man on fire running from a burning house followed by Bush’s shotgun wielding “deterrence” of small boys who throw stones at his windows. Seemingly disconnected at first, the fire sets up pic’s denouement. Ten minutes in, pic gains steam. Other than Bush’s over-the-top character, the only clue at the outset that this is more comedy than drama is the casting of Bill Murray as Frank Quinn, the P.T. Barnum of undertakers. Murray’s Quinn is by turns cynical, a con-man, creative, and empathetic. He also gets pic’s best punch lines — including one that your critic knows is dead wrong. “Nobody steals hearses” is not true. The funeral of your critic’s great uncle, a noted Communist and atheist, was graced by the theft of the hearse during the service. Fortunately Uncle Mariano was not in said hearse when it was stolen. The irony of holding a Catholic Mass for the Dead for an atheist was not lost on your critic.
Bush has decided to “get low”, which means getting his affairs in order and planning his own funeral. The process starts out serious with a visit to Rev. Gus Horton (Gerald McRaney). The two don’t see eye-to-eye. A visit to the Rev. Horton by Quinn’s assistant, Buddy (Lucas Black) at the same time provides the excuse to bring Murray on screen. Not enough people die in the one-horse town to keep the Quinn Funeral Home afloat, he complains. Bush is a Godsend. The catch is that he wants a “funeral party” while he is still alive, a party at which he invites anyone to say about him whatever they know. Quinn and Buddy get right to work on it with the latest 1930 publicity methods including a radio broadcast in which Bush says that the highlight of the event will be a raffle, $5 for a ticket, in which the winner will get his huge tract of virgin timber untouched for 40 years. Ticket money pours into the Quinn Funeral Home.
Enter Sissy Spacek as Mattie Darrow, a charming widow who returned to the town after her husband’s death in St. Louis. She is pic’s only townsperson who has anything nice to say about Bush. It is a joy to see her on screen, totally convincing. The revelation of the nature of her relationship to Bush is pic’s only difficult plot twist to follow. It seems that Bush’s secret is something that she would have known — he was dating her 40 years earlier when he fell in love with her married sister, but the realization does not strike Mattie until she see’s her sister’s faded photograph on Bush’s wall. At that point she nearly strikes Bush. Note to guys: do not hit on girlfriend’s sister.
Only one other living person knows Bush’s story, Rev. Charlie Jackson (Bill Cobbs), an elderly Illinois preacher whose church Bush built. Duvall’s Felix Bush is a noted carpenter whose work impresses everyone with its elegant simplicity. Plot ultimately hangs on Rev. Jackson’s reluctance to speak at Bush’s funeral.
The payoff, when it comes, is emotionally satisfying largely due to the sympathy Duvall has engendered from auds as his Felix Bush was slowly revealed to be far more gentle and complicated than anyone would have imagined. The flaw, if it can be called that, is that the guilty secret, when finally exposed — and there is a question until almost the last minute whether Bush will speak for himself or wimp out and let Rev. Jackson tell his story — is more the result of the law of unintended consequences than of any other cause. Turning one’s back on society and becoming a hermit for 40 years seems like a penitent over-reaction. Duvall, Cobbs, and Spacek are so compelling, however that this conclusion does not enter one’s mind until well after the closing credits.
One more tip of the hat to Duvall: He plays a number of scenes with an utterly charming mule. To his credit, the mule does not steal them.
“Get Low” is rated PG-13 for some language, largely uttered by Murray. No grammar school child will be unfamiliar with it. It is told with respect and dignity. Have no fear of taking the kids. They may enjoy it.