Movie News & Reviews

'Get Low': Duvall gets it perfectly right

Robert Duvall stars as a self-exiled hermit in rural Tennessee in Get Low.
Robert Duvall stars as a self-exiled hermit in rural Tennessee in Get Low.

Felix Bush is the closest thing his east Tennessee town has to Bigfoot.

Hirsute, antisocial and at times downright violent, the elderly hermit has kept real life at bay for 38 years, posting his backwoods property with "No Damn Trespassing" signs and patrolling the perimeter with a rifle. This belligerent boogeyman has become such a mythic figure that when he rides his mule-drawn buckboard to town, the streets go hushed.

There could be no better actor for the role than Robert Duvall. In a sublimely observed performance, he does an emotional dance of the seven veils, revealing that old man Bush is strong and capable, courtly, burdened by pain and losses. He is also about half mad from doing a harsh, self-imposed penance for almost four decades.

The recluse comes to town because he reckons his days are numbered and he wants to go out with a bang. He visits Frank Quinn's funeral parlor to commission a send-off party while he is still alive. Quinn (Bill Murray), an apathetic vulture who sighs, "People are dying in bunches, everywhere but here," is perplexed. When Bush puts a roll of bills the size of a coffee can on his desk, Quinn practically jumps out of his vest to organize the morbid hoedown. If his eccentric client wants to invite all the townsfolk who loathe him, giving them a chance to tell their stories about him, well, the customer is always right.

Quinn organizes radio appearances for the "crazy old nutter" and sells tickets to everyone in the county. Murray, who was born to play flakes and snake-oil salesmen, is perfectly cast as the hustling mortician.

Blessed by the gods of casting with two performers whose faces belong on any Mount Rushmore of American actors, Get Low could coast to the finish line and be a fine little dramatic comedy. Somehow, director Aaron Schneider scored a trifecta, hauling in Sissy Spacek, too. She plays Mattie Darrow, Bush's sweet old flame "a thousand years ago." She physically resembles a delicate, well-preserved china doll, but there's a core of iron to her. As it comes to light that Bush is organizing his goodbye party, because he needs a strong dose of redemption — in part because of the way he abused Mattie's trust — she calls him to account as no other character can.

Cinematographer-turned-director Schneider lights the film like an old master, and he sees the feral glory of his boondocks locations. He gets the look of Depression-era Tennessee just right (although it was filmed in Georgia): no cheap nostalgia, but shabbiness and beauty side by side. The screenplay by Chris Provenzano (Mad Men) and C. Gaby Mitchell (Blood Diamond) is based on a true story in Roane County, Tenn. It's a winning blend of light comedy and gallows humor.

The big reveal, a public pre-deathbed confession, isn't as surprising as you would hope, but Duvall's delivery — stammering, choking on his words, blinking back manly tears — is a bravura moment. Get Low is one of the high points of the summer.

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