Tuesday, July 19, 2011


Duvall, Spacek & Murray take a turn for the best

I really enjoyed this sliver of a film. Produced on a slim-to-nothing budget in less than a month, it is both simple and complex. The characters are well drawn; the script―an eight-year labor of love―is tight, and the plot’s twist and turns keep you guessing until the very end, or close to it.

Filmed in Georgia, but based loosely on the true story of an east Tennessee man named Felix "Bush" Breazeale, Get Low is, at first glance, a story about a man, a secret, and a funeral. On a more philosophical plane, it is about the multi-shades of love and loss. On yet another level, it’s about guilt, and coming to terms with the things you’ve done and left undone. These, and other profound subjects have been masterfully interwoven within a quirky script that is both funny and poignant.

As portrayed by Robert Duvall, Bush is an eccentric recluse (aren’t they all?) who has chosen to live a solitary life in the woods for some forty years. His only companion is a mule named Gracie. Two well-loved, long-gone dogs are buried in a fenced-in plot on the property, where, he says he too intends to ‘reside’ one day “―if they’ll have me.”

As the film opens, the 1930s are coming to a close, and Bush, now well into his seventies, has earned himself a reputation that comes from years of living in a self-imposed prison. Everyone, it seems, has a story to tell about this wild-haired, stoic-faced, rifle-toting septuagenarian, and none of them are good. Where the truth lies only Felix knows.

When a contemporary dies of old age, it forces this outsider to contemplate his own passing, along with the life he’s lived, and the consequences of his actions. In doing so, he comes up with a plan that is, to say the least, unconventional. He wants to have what he refers to as “a funeral party”, the only catch― he wants it to take place while he’s still alive and able to hear what everyone has to say about him. At least, that’s the way he lays it out to the local pastor.

When the pastor ( Simon & Simon’s Gerald McRaney) turns down a request to oversee the proceedings, Bush heads for the Quinn Funeral Home, where funeral director Frank Quinn (Bill Murray) has been stressing out over the lack of business. “You read the paper today?” he asks his young protege, Buddy Robinson. “People are dying in bunches everywhere but here… One thing about Chicago, people know how to die. They drown, get run over, shot, whatever it takes. “ “We get to dyin’ around here,” counters Buddy. “It’s just that we’re not in a hurry about it.”

Unfortunately for Quinn, time is running out, and what business there is, is fraught with problems. A one-way telephone conversational (think Bob Newhart), gives us a taste of what the funeral director is dealing with.

Quinn: Yes, ma’am, I do respect your wishes. But, you see, state law requires…
(He pauses as she interrupts)
No ma’am. We can’t bury him beneath the house.
All right. Well, just for argument’s sake, how would you get the casket under the house?
No casket. Well, but you have to have a container of some kind, ma’am, for decency and for sanitation…
Yes, ma’am, but there’s lots of things that are natural that aren’t decent. (Pause)
He did
Good God.
No ma’am, I didn’t know that about your husband.
Well, yeah, now I understand why you want him under the house, but still…”

It is arguably the best scene in the film – certainly the best funny scene, and Murray plays it for all it’s worth. When Bush’s entrance interrupts the call, the ‘fun’ continues.

“About time for me to get low” he tells the funeral director, who hasn’t a clue what he’s talking about.
“Get what?”
“Down to business. I need a funeral” he says plainly, laying out his plan. What’s more, he’s got the box, the plot, and the money to do it up right, with a band and food and who knows what all. He just needs Quinn to make it happen. Anyone within a four-county area that has a story to tell about him is welcome.

While Quinn sees Bush as the goose that laid the golden egg, Buddy is not as anxious to hop on the gravy train, questioning the morality of taking money from a man who is obviously out of his mind. “You can’t have a funeral if you’re not deceased” he says, his scruples outweighing his need to support his wife and child. “Hold on now,” says Quinn, who’s not about to let opportunity knock elsewhere. “It’s a detail. We can look at it.” And with that, we’re off and running.

In short order photos are taken, posters are posted and the media—such as it is, is alerted. A lottery is added to the mix as an extra incentive to get folks to come on down. Buy a five dollar ticket, and if yours is the lucky number, when Bush kicks the bucket you become the proud owner of his cabin, barn and the 300 acres of pristine timber they sit on.

As the money begins to pour in, Bush gets a makeover. Beard shaved. Hair cut, suit fitted and shoes tied, he bares little resemblance to the wild looking “crazy ol’ nutter” on the poster. Of his new look he says simple, “I’ve been pruned.”

While the reason for all this fuss appears to be his desire to hear what people have to say about him, we soon realize that it’s quite the opposite. And though we must wait until funeral day to learn the real reason for the party, we are given some clues, along with a hint as to who this man is, and was, thanks to a soft-spoken sixty-something widow lady named Mattie Darrow.

Darrow, as played by Sissy Spacek, knew Bush “a thousand years ago” – long before he tucked himself away behind a gnarly beard and a bunch of trees. She tells Buddy’s wife that Bush was (and is) the most interesting man she ever met. “Most people are laid out nice and simple,” she says. “You always know what they’re thinking,” While Bush was “like this big old cave that just went deeper and deeper.”

Over the course of the film, we come to understand what she’s talking about, as, through the smallest of gestures, Duvall peels away the layers, revealing the love, pain, and regret that has brought him to this place.

Why did Bush opt out? Hang in? Turn off? By the end of the film you’ll have your answer. In between, you’ll chuckle, sigh, and marvel at the way these consummate actors wrap their minds around their characters. Bill Cobbs, who plays Reverend Jackson, a black preacher from another time and town, is superb, as are many of the supporting players. Likewise, the clothes, settings and accoutrement's are spot-on. Even the hearse is of the period.

At first glance, the idea of pairing Duvall and Murray may sound like a casting mismatch. But once you see the two of them on screen together, I think you'll be pleasantly surprised. Their timing – particularly in the aforementioned funeral parlor scene, is as good as it gets. The script, which was written and polished by three different and totally devoted writers, is an example of saying more with less, as when Quinn asks Bush how he knows the widow Darrow. So controlled is Duvall’s body language, that it appears he hasn’t heard the question. Then, after a beat, comes the answer: “We had a go.”

“We had a go”? Perfect.

Such Coen brothers-like moments are counter-balanced with insightful scenes that give the viewer something to think about, as when Mattie and Felix talk about aging. “The list of people who are gone is getting longer and longer” laments Mattie, “and it seems like all I’m doing is just waiting for my number to be called.” “You can’t wait for anything,” replies a thoughtful and reflective Bush. “Close your eyes. Hold your breath. Stay in a spot all your life, but you’re still moving, like the world is-you know, moving under you. There’s no waiting.”

Out of context, such dialogue may sound a bit preachy. But every bit of it is there for a reason, moving the story and telling us a little bit more about the characters we’ve come to care about.

Get Low is funny, touching and thought provoking. And while it’s not exactly Hitchcock, it manages to keep you guessing. My only complaint deals with a moment towards the end of the film that is a bit over the top for my taste, but the rest of it is quite extraordinary.

Throughout a multitude of bonus features the production team talks about how hard it was to find financing for the film, despite the impressive cast. It seems that in a world hooked on blockbusters, teen idols and comic book heroes, the studios aren’t interested in story lines devoid of special effects and freshly scrubbed faces. Thank goodness the producers persevered until they found investors who recognized the value in this small but worthy film.

Although the movie was well received (“Get Low is Duvall’s Greatest High”—Variety), Get Low pulled in less than ten million dollars worldwide, and came and went without fanfare. There was a bit of early Oscar buzz, but when the time came, no nominations were bestowed. The only major – or not-so-major award went to Duvall, who took home the 2010 Hollywood Best Actor Award for his work.

I think the title may have, if you’ll excuse the expression, done them in, as the phrase “get low” is a bit too close to “down low” – urban/African American slang that more than likely put off some movie-goers. Whatever the reason, Get Low got lost in the shuffle. Gratefully, thanks to a growing after-sale market, you have the chance to literally check it out.

As with many of the movies I write about, Get Low isn’t perfect. You want perfect? watch The King’s Speech. It is, in my opinion, about as perfect as a film can get. But one film does not a lifetime of movie-watching make. Thankfully, tucked inside decades of imperfect films are exquisitely perfect performances. You’ll find several of them in this sorely neglected film , as when Bush steps to the mic at his funeral party and faces a sea of storytellers.

Get Low is a small, well drawn and executed, satisfying film that is filled with good performances and unforgettable moments. I hope you’ll seek it out. First time director Aaron Schneider, who could have easily been intimidated by the weight of his cast's credentials, did a masterful job of putting it all together, his background as a cinematographer serving him well during filming and in the editing room. Rent or buy the DVD and you'll be treated to all kinds of extras that will give you an even greater appreciation for the film and the people behind it. After you've heard what everyone had to say, watch it again. I think you'll find that Get Low gets even better the second time around.

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