One of the most consistently interesting and reliable actors in the movies over the last 40-plus years, Robert Duvall must have found something irresistible in the premise of his new film, Get Low. It's a tall tale about an old backwoods, Depression-era hermit who decides to throw himself a "funeral party" while he's still alive to participate.
As executive producer, as well as star, Duvall emulates his character by staging a sort of cinematic love-feast for himself and the profession he loves. Viewers who have enjoyed Duvall for all these years will be delighted to come to the party.
Directed by Aaron Schneider from a script by Chris Provenzano and C. Gaby Mitchell, Get Low maintains a wistful tone laced with a hint of mystery in the story of a reclusive old cuss about whom much is rumored, but very little is known. The gradually unfolding story of the cantankerous codger provides a muted and involving setting for the rough-cut gem that is Duvall's performance. He acts his heart out beneath his character's taciturn façade, and if we catch him at it a bit too often, and other story elements don't always add up, at least his entertaining performance is its own reward.
As Duvall's character, mountain man Felix Bush explains, to "get low" means to cut the b.s. and get to the point. As Felix, Duvall looks like a refugee from a ZZ Top video, with his long grey beard, cowboy hat, and ever-present rifle. Holed up in a hand-built cabin in the woods for 40 years, he sets tongues to clacking when he hitches up a buggy to his mule and drives into town one day with a roll of cash to pay for a funeral while he's still alive. The town preacher offers him only platitudes, but the proprietor of the town's one funeral parlor, Frank Quinn (Bill Murray) is desperate enough for business to go along with Felix's crazy scheme.
Felix is similar to the very first role Duvall ever played in the movies, Boo Radley in To Kill A Mockingbird, four decades later. Like Boo, everyone has heard so many crazy stories about Felix, he's hated and feared by those who don't know the truth of his life. He invites everyone to his "funeral party" to tell a story about him, then sweetens the deal with a lottery: the lucky winner will inherit his virgin timberland property when he's gone. But it's not that Felix has a sudden urge to party down. He's after atonement, and he needs the whole town there to witness it.
You can't exactly say Duvall disappears into his character, but he's fun to watch throughout. Ornery with those who offer him grief, wily with his allies, and courtly with self-possessed widow, Mattie (Sissy Spacek), the only one left in town who shares any history with him, Felix gives Duvall an opportunity to employ his full arsenal, including dry chuckles, gruff mumbles, and sly asides, communicating much without a lot of long-winded dialogue. It's unfortunate that by the time he gets to Felix's big climactic speech, Duvall delivers it more like an actor would than a reclusive old man shy of the limelight. But otherwise Duvall maintains his character's integrity.
Unfortunate, too, is most of the rest of the story. Simplistically laid out, it traffics in loose threads (a seemingly portentous town bully; an unresolved subplot about stolen money) that turn out to have nothing to do with the story. The byplay between Quinn and his assistant (Lucas Black) is never all that interesting, but Bill Cobbs is a welcome presence in a couple of scenes as an irascible old friend of Felix's, a preacher from Ilinois who shares his aprreciation for straight talk. And through it all, Duvall keeps us involved in the unraveling of Felix's story.
GET LOW ★★1/2 (out of four)
With Robert Duvall, Sissy Spacek, and Bill Murray. Written by Chris Provenzano and C. Gaby Mitchell. Directed by Aaron Schneider. A release. Rated PG-13. 100 minutes.
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