|In ‘‘Get Low,’’ Robert Duvall teams up with Sissy Spacek (pictured) and Bill Murray to tell the true story of a 1930s Tennessee recluse. who wants to be present at his own funeral. (Sam Emerson/Sony Picture Classics)|
Undertaking a hermit’s fable
As he nears 80, Robert Duvall seems to have entered a second grace — or is it his third? The legendary actor has a half century under his belt, hundreds of film and TV roles, six Oscar nominations, one win (for 1983’s “Tender Mercies’’), and nothing left to prove. So he produces movies and appears in what he wants. Because he’s a tango freak — who knew? — we got Duvall playing a dancing hit man in 2002’s “Assassination Tango.’’ And because he still has a soft spot for the sinner redeemed, we now have “Get Low,’’ a charming, spiky period piece that might be called “Boo Radley: The Final Years.’’
Duvall’s pretty much the whole show here and he’s a sight to see. His character, Felix Bush, is the town hermit in an out-of-the-way corner of Tennessee in the 1930s. With his crazy-man beard and ever-present shotgun, he has been the stuff of tall tales and boys’ nightmares for decades, but no one seems to remember what, exactly, made Felix this way. Which is how Felix likes it.
Until, one day, he doesn’t. So he saddles up his mule, rides into town — the locals gawking as if they’d seen Bigfoot at the grocery store — and stops in at the local undertaker. Felix wants a funeral, but he wants to be there — alive — to hear what people have to say. Or maybe he has something to say to them.
It’s fairly irrelevant to the movie, but there apparently was a real Felix “Uncle Bush’’ Brazeale whose 1938 wake, with the “corpse’’ in attendance, drew national media attention and 10,000 “mourners’’ for what amounted to a giant county fair. Because Duvall’s Felix has a lot he wants to get off his chest, though, “Get Low’’ has a lot on its mind: redemption, forgiveness, acceptance.
The script by Chris Provenzano, C. Gaby Mitchell, and Scott Seeke is slyly observant about the way folks in these parts say a lot with little and it honors their uninflected small-town decency as something valuable that has been lost. But it also leans increasingly on sentiment, and Aaron Schneider, a cinematographer making his feature directing debut, doesn’t have the touch to raise the film out of the likably ordinary. “Get Low’’ is a fable but a workmanlike one.
Instead, Schneider relies on a cast full of ringers. Sissy Spacek plays the old coot’s one-time love, a widow retired from life in the big city but unprepared for the depth and tragedy — the still scalding pain — of Felix’s big secret. Lucas Black, back in 1996 the young boy of “Sling Blade,’’ is an anchor of sanity as an assistant mortician vouchsafed with hiding thousands of dollars in a casket after Felix decides to raffle off his land on the big day.
The head mortician, Frank Quinn — a Chicago fellow running from a few ghosts of his own — is played by Bill Murray, and as much as I love this man and would be happy to see him any time in any movie, the fact remains he feels out of place in this one. Over the years, Murray has become the personification of modern irony in the wisest, most gracious sense imaginable, but an ironic man fits into the Depression setting of “Get Low’’ about as naturally as a two-headed calf. He’s very funny, but there’s room for only one eccentric here, and it’s Duvall.
The star plays his role much as he has his other loners over the years, as a bitter, intelligent tortoise slowly coming out of his shell. Spacek’s character likens Felix to a cave that keeps going deeper and deeper, and over the course of “Get Low,’’ after the beard comes off, we see that he has been warped not by his memories but by the one thing he can’t remember. As he has done so often over the decades, Duvall creates with plain-spoken dignity a portrait of a man who has to bury himself before he can finally live.
Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.