At a certain juncture in Get Low, long-time hermit Felix Bush (Robert Duvall) is made to look presentable for his funeral. Not an unusual process you might think for any body readied for its last great ceremony, but this particular old body is still alive. Before the stalactite of beard is winnowed down to a wispy goatee, before the scraggly cascade of grey hair is cropped close at the back of the neck, funeral director Frank Quinn (Bill Murray) makes sure that he gets a photo of Felix in full-on hermit guise . Since Felix wants to have as many people attend his funeral "party" as possible, the funeral dierctor wisely has a photo taken that will match both the scant memories folks in his Southern environs might have of him as well as the outsized legends that have sprung up around the man.
When all of that barbering is complete, Felix is transformed from a prototypical old coot to someone who looks like he could pass for dashing senior Confederate officer of decades past. That transition from an appearance rife with comic possibililty to one far more dignified mirrors the direction taken by Get Low, from the merely droll to something far more affecting.
Got Low is based on the real story of Felix "Bush" Breazeale, a bachelor in Roane County, Tennessee, who in 1938 decided to have funeral for himself while he could still enjoy it. It drew a crowd of thousands, was covered by the Associated Press, United Press and photographed for Life magazine. I don't know if Felix Breazeale carried any troubling secrets with him through his life and to that strange gathering, but it's one such secret that drives Get Low's Felix Bush into 40 years of self-imposed exile. When he's notified of a contemporary's death and funeral, he decides to take his slightly grimy wad of money - "Ooooh, Hermit money," utters the impecunious funeral director; it's a classic Bill Murray line reading - and "get low," get down to business, and arrange a funeral of his own.
As we get to know the solitary Felix and the townsfolk who are drawn warily into his orbit, the most damning thing to be said about Get Low is that it presents a South as viewed from some mainstream magazine, the sort that might celebrate its native wisdom and gentle rhythms of life, while glossing over less charming attributes. It's a Hollywood South. Perhaps the most dubious choice made in the story by Chris Provenzano (he and C. Gaby Mitchell wrote the script) is the character of the Reverend Charlie Jackson, played by Bill Cobbs. There's nothing wrong with Mr. Cobb's performance; he provides his usual, amiably gruff gravitas. And there was a real Charles E. Jackson from Paris, Illinois who presided at the funeral of Felix Breazeale. But the real reverend Jackson was, not surprising for the time and place, a white man. Making the reverend an African American character seems a cop out, an attempt to burnish the story with a multi-racial sheen that is neither realistic nor necessary.
The funeral director, judiciously, is presented as a non-southerner. Perhaps to dovetail to Bill Murray's beginnings, he's made to be a Chicago native. Mr. Murray's Frank Quinn is a interesting blend of smarm and sincerity. It is an affably seductive version of the former with which Murray made his name in the movies. He combines that with the doleful minimalism he has used to such good effect in recent years, in films like Broken Flowers and Lost in Translation. He's always had a character actor's face and here he gets a chance to do some rather satisfying character acting.
Where the story gets a bit broad and the scene a little too quaint on occasion, the script is more sure. All of Felix's terse utterings, whether to his beloved mule or to far-less-beloved fellow humans, ring pretty true. This is a matter, of course, of both writing and Mr. Duvall's considerable skill in bringing it to credible life. The various turns in plot, as the funeral is arranged and then derailed and then suddenly on again, are less credible. But for it's flaws, Mr. Provenzano's story is interesting in its unstated theme that one's public virtue is often proportionate to the degree to which one participates in society, says and does the same things as everyone else. Felix Bush might have reason to torment himself, but rumors of his misdeeds on the part of others seem to be greatly exaggerated.
We know from the film's initial scene that Felix's secret has something to do with a fire. As Get Low begins, we see a house ablaze in the night. The image is sustained, flames swooping up out of windows, the entire place a cauldron, when a fiery figure appears in the frame. It's goes to the ground and subsquently flashes by, a young man running as if chased by the devil himself. Given the cut straight to hermit Felix, it would appear a safe enough assumption that the briefly fiery figure was him. A picture of a lovely young woman above the bed in his otherwise tidy but unadorned bedroom would also seem to be of considerable importance.
Sissy Spacek plays Mattie Darrow, who turns out to be the younger sister of the woman haunting Felix from above his bed. Frank and his assistant (Lucas Black) are surprised to find out that Mattie actually knows Felix. As Felix later confirms when talking to the pair while they drive between the town and his home, the two once "had a go." Had either man possessed a mouth full of liquid, we would have been treated to a spit take. That Felix is just full of secrets.
Mattie eventually visits Felix at his well-maintained cabin, set among virgin forest. Duvall and Spacek have played together before, and chemistry goes beyond the merely believable to something more natural. After seeing Mattie and the older Felix walk and talk together, it would be surprising to learn they don't have a past. Like Duvall, Ms. Spacek seems very much at home in the role and the story. She's a welcome presence. Unfotunately, the reminiscence between Mattie and Felix is cut short when Mattie notices the picture on the wall. She's shocked to see the framed photo on the bedroom wall, a quick and upending indication that her late sister and Felix were involved to such an unforgettable degree.
It's hard to imagine Get Low without Robert Duvall. It's even harder to imagine the film succeeding without Duvall holding forth in the central role. He's like an old blues or country musician with whom individual notes can take on a life of their own. He's able to communicate more with a simple movement or an exhalation than lesser actors might with pages of dialog.
While Felix had seemed hell-bent to gather as many people as possible to tell stories about him at his unorthdox funeral, what he really seeks is an audience to whom he relate his version of the story, to unburden himself at last. It's not a matter of redemption, but simple repentance. But like so many simple things, the execution proves daunting. Felix isn't sure he can do it, which is why he wants the Reverend Jackson to be there as a kind of second in the duel with himself. He's able to do the job himself though, and in Duvall's hands, it becomes something very moving. It's a confession for Felix and - even if he chose not to work again - a pretty suitable valedictory for one of our great actors.