The new film Get Low—set in 1930s Tennessee—fits snugly into the traditions of Southern literature, particularly the tensions between gentility and eccentricity, the community and the individual, and man and God. Get Low is also a welcome late-career showcase for Robert Duvall, a film artist whose Southern associations stretch from playing Boo Radley in 1962's To Kill a Mockingbird to directing The Apostle.
According to Duvall's Felix Bush, the "Mysterious Hermit of Caleb County," to "get low" means to get down to business, though it can also mean to prostrate oneself before a higher power. Given that Bush is planning his own funeral, to "get low" also implies burial. Perhaps for the filmmakers and the audience as well as the characters, to get low is to achieve deeper meaning.
The funeral plot finds Bush leaving his forest cabin to put his affairs in order. His refusal to ask forgiveness makes him a poor candidate for a church burial, but he's willing to entertain the offer of services from young funeral director Buddy (Lucas Black). When Lucas' boss Frank (the ever-droll Bill Murray) feels the tug of a big fish, he involves himself in Felix's crackpot plan of a funeral at which he will be the guest of honor. All other guests will be required to share a story about Felix, in exchange for a chance to inherit his three-hundred acres of tall, virgin trees.
Seemingly, Felix wants little more than for people to speak plainly and truthfully (as one preacher says, "Gossip is the devil's radio"). Though his own deep-seated issues clearly prevent him from facing some unspoken truth about his own life, Felix's project and increasingly irrepressible spirit stir something in the people around him: the sympathetic Buddy, Felix's old flame Mattie (Sissy Spacek) and old friend Rev. Charlie Jackson (Bill Cobbs), and even bottom-liner Frank, who turns out to be a bit of a softie.
The folksy tale has a true-story inspiration (a fella named Felix "Bush" Breazeale infamously attended his own funeral in Roane, Tennessee), but Get Low is strictly legend. Director Aaron Schneider—whose Oscar-winning short film adapted William Faulkner's "Two Soldiers"—sets a reflective tone, the better to consider philosophical questions about the difficulty of truly knowing another person, atonement in preparation for death, and the greater value of living for the moment.
At first, Duvall cannily contains his natural vitality, suggesting inner sparks of wit and warmth that inevitably emerge (along with an expressive melancholy). The tight screenplay by Chris Provenzano and C. Gaby Mitchell gives dramatic duets to Duvall and Spacek and a climactic monologue to Duvall that's a five-minute master class in screen acting: an Oscar nomination would seem assured. Mattie could well be describing the man who plays Felix when she refers to him as having seemingly limitless depths.
[This review first appeared in Palo Alto Weekly.]