Getting low means getting down to business, in the parlance of the backwoods oddity played, wonderfully, by Robert Duvall in Get Low.
Let’s get down to business, then. This film, calm but full of feeling, relays an intriguing story brought to life by some beautiful actors. Besides handing Duvall his best role since The Apostle back in the last century, director Aaron Schneider’s debut feature showcases a meticulously droll turn from Bill Murray and a pitch-perfect portrayal from Sissy Spacek as the one who knew the mysterious recluse before he planted a “No Damn Trespassing” sign on his land.
The story comes from “a true tall tale,” as the ads say. In 1938, a Tennessee man who came from wealth, Felix Breazeale, lived with his mule in the woods. Before dying, well before, in fact, he set upon the idea of throwing himself a living funeral, with his land to be given away by lottery. He passed several years later.
From this basic tale, Get Low goes its own way. It is defiantly old-fashioned in its carpentry and proudly Playhouse 90 in its dramaturgical progression. Duvall’s Felix harbors a secret; that secret, which relates to the mystery of the raging fire we see in the prologue, explains why Felix did what he did and became what he became.
The role harkens back to another role Duvall played half a lifetime ago, in the 1962 film version of To Kill a Mockingbird: Boo Radley. The man at the center of Get Low is a local legend, a demon to some, a cipher to others. The story locale remains vague, though it’s implied we’re in late 1930s Missouri; if there’s an actor alive who looks more at home in this time and place than Duvall, I’d like to see him work.
The aging cipher behind the Smith Brothers beard wants to throw himself a funeral party to hear what people have to say about him before he’s gone. Murray’s role is that of the local funeral director, Frank Quinn, a weasel in a weaselly little moustache, originally from Chicago (people, he sighs, really “know how to die there”). The second he realizes what Felix represents — “hermit money!” — Murray’s characterization clicks quietly into place, and the result is a supporting performance that should jolly well be remembered come Academy Awards time. (As should Duvall’s performance.) Watch how Murray finesses the moment when Quinn ascertains what potential riches the funeral shopper before him represents. It’s a lesson in how not to tip one’s hand, yet how to mine nonverbal reactions for deadpan comic effect.
First-time feature director Schneider achieves sincere results and a spare but evocative atmosphere on a modest budget. His work, at this stage, is more about clarity and honesty than honing a distinct visual style. At times, the script creaks; when one character takes his leave by saying “I’m outta here,” the anachronism bell rings. (Also, Lucas Black can do only so much as Quinn’s bland assistant.) Yet, when we arrive at the funeral party proper, attended by local townsfolk and visitors eager for a shot at the land, Duvall’s Felix takes the stage with a confessional monologue that grows richer and more moving as it unfolds. Spacek gets sadly fewer opportunities to show what she can do here, but you believe everything about her character. Get Low knows its business and gets down to it. I’m eager to see it again.
—MCT, Tribune Newspapers Respond: firstname.lastname@example.org