Thursday, September 2, 2010

Get Low

"The Hell With It. The Hell With Me."
"An Old Nutter Attracts More..."

Twain coulda wrote this one: a hermit of 40 years makes his way into town to arrange his own funeral party (which he'd like to attend before it's required, thank you).

That "Get Low," which tells the tale, is based on a true story only makes it that much more enjoyable, even if the film itself turns dark, just as Twain woulda spun it.  It is, when all is said and done, about a funeral.

Frank Bush (Robert Duvall), who has lived apart from the Tennesee community, has developed a reputation as a "Boogie-Man"—for Duvall, this role is the push-back book-end to his "Boo" Radley from "To Kill a Mockingbird"—and gets it in his mind to arrange a "living funeral," where anyone who has a story to tell about him can and might.  For local funeral home director Frank Quinn (Bill Murray), Bush's odd request is an opportunity to make a big score and arrange an ultimate funeralwhatever it takes, he'll do, even if the arrangements start to get a little bit out of his control.  For Murray's Quinn, it's a movie-length warning of "It's your funeral..."

The poster above makes one think that it's a two hander, just Duvall and Murray, but this is an ensemble picture—a very meticulously cast one—with a lot of people, including Lucas Black, Sissy Spacek, Bill Cobbs and Gerald McRaney doing some of their most effective work in years.  Spacek, in particular, is a marvel.  This isn't one of her "splashy" roles, and she's been purposely de-glammed to take the blossom off her ripe strawberry features, but she still manages to make every define her character by the simplest of gestures, or by the "social smile" under pained eyes.  Bill Cobbs plays a prickly minister acquaintance of Bush's, and makes the maximum potential out of a small role—like Duvall used to in his early career—with innate comic timing and a sense of doomed inevitability.  His laugh brings a smile to the face.  Murray does his best work in years.  His Quinn is at heart an opportunist, but makes it look presentable (like any good funeral director!) with the look of feigned dignity and a melancholy elan.

But it's Duvall's picture—he's in most scenes—and one is tempted to call it Oscar-bait for the veteran character actor, as he hasn't had a role this big in years—the arc of the character turning from eccentric to tragic figure without betraying the characteristics on either end of the curve, displaying his capacity to create a living character, able to accomodate the trials and tones of the movie.  Speaking in a voice like brittle rice paper, that flakes off bits of sentences at the end, his Bush is a courtly soul in need of definition.  The old hermit, after spending 40 years in a self-imposed exile from the opinions of others, initially seeks their judgement, first as audience, and then as performer, seeking some ablution or absolution—a trial-run, if you will, in the court of public opinion, before being forced to succumb to the Final Judgement.  It is confession and catharsis, timed with the death of one man, and the return of his widow to her home-town.  Duvall's funeral speech is humble, contrite and confused, and the actor provides an amazing sonic counter-point to his recounting of the history that has dominated and colored his existence.  His performance haunts, in the display of a haunted man.

Director Andrew Schneider, a previous Oscar winner for his short film work, manages to maintain a visual interest throughout the movie, observing events but never calling attention to itself observing.  Characters are sometimes over-whelmed in the surroundings, and the scale of the film is sparingly in line with a small-town closeness.  That the tone gradually shifts from quaint eccentricity to Southern Gothic is probably inevitable for a film that climaxes with a funeral, especially one that starts with humble beginnings and turns grandiose and complicated (in a movie turn towards melodrama that had nothing to do with the actual historical events of the real Felix Breazeale).  But, without the added mystery, and "the story to tell," the film would have had no depth, and would have felt as shallow as a grave in a pet cemetary.   The embellishments give the story added weight, and make the turns of events mean something, as opposed to just being an old man's fancy.

Well worth seeing.

"Get Low" is a Matinee.

The real Felix "Bush" Breazeale, attending his funeral in 1938.

1 comment:

Andrew: Encore Entertainment said...

I'm interested in this, anxious even a little but I'm not really that excited. Duvall always seems under the radar for me.