GET LOW. Starring Robert Duvall, Sissy Spacek, Bill Murray, Lucas Black, and Bill Cobbs. Directed by Aaron Schneider. Rated M (Mature theme). 103 min.
This film is based on a true story that happened in Roane County, Tennessee, US, in 1938. It is a character study of Felix “Bush” Breazeale (Robert Duvall), who lived for 40 years as a grumpy hermit, deep in the woods of the forest that surrounded him. Bush was a mysterious person, whom the townspeople feared, and his past was the subject of many rumours. One of those rumours is related to the opening scenes of the film, which show a man running away from a house on fire.
Decades on, Bush turns up in town at its funeral parlour asking for a “living funeral”. He wants his funeral while he is still alive. Frank Quinn (Bill Murray) who manages the local funeral parlour is conscious that Bush must be nearing the end of his life, but Bush is approaching him with a different plan. For Quinn, business is not brisk as he waits for people to die, and he agrees to Bush’s proposal. When the funeral occurs, the whole town turns up, and Bush stands by the coffin that is supposed to carry his body. The occasion makes Bush a celebrity, and it creates a legend.
Many stories exist about Bush’s past, and “gossip is the devil’s radio”. But one story stands out, and it is about the fire 40 years before which took the lives of a husband and his wife. Buddy Robinson (Lucas Black), who harassed Bush as a young boy and works for Quinn, becomes friendly with Bush, and his goodness gives Bush the final courage to tell his story. That early incident involved three people: Bush, the married sister of Mattie (Sissy Spacek), whom he once dated, and the husband of Mattie’s sister, who was abusive to his wife. Mattie’s sister and her husband die in the inferno of their house, which was set alight. But who set the house on fire? Felix Bush was the only one to survive, and people have always wondered why. Bush’s funeral is his chance of getting the truth behind the fire out in the open. In Bush’s own words, “it is about time for me to get low, down to business”.
The acting in the movie is almost flawless. Robert Duvall, brings years of experience to a demanding and unusual role. Bill Murray brings a seasoned style to his role as owner of the funeral parlour, and Sissy Spacek brings subtlety and sophistication to her role as the woman, who thought Bush once loved her. Bill Cobbs is marvellously eccentric as the colourful Rev. Charlie Jackson, the minister, who knows what happened that night, and who presides over Bush’s mock funeral.
One’s own funeral service is an unusual theme for a movie, but it is handled here with wit, warmth, and high drama. This is Aaron Schneider’s first movie as a director, and it clearly shows that his previous experience lay in cinematography. The film is beautifully shot. It has a wonderful look of the past about it, and its scenes are packed with enormous detail.
There is something of a contrived nature to the way in which Felix’s past is revealed, but one doesn’t mind. There is a beautifully measured pace to this film. It has a gentle tone, and its emotional intensity gathers momentum as the film progresses. At the conclusion of the movie, Bush shares with the townspeople his guilt for actions he regrets, and the film movingly shows an old man taking final responsibility for what he did. Bush’s words tell us what those opening scenes really meant, but one suspects that only part of the story has been told. We sense his personal grief, and his sense of loss, but we also know there is half a life-time of passion behind his measured words.
This movie provides a delicate and sensitive contrast to the fast-paced, pretence of many other films that are around. It is quietly engrossing, part real, part nostalgic, and mixes true events with legend in a delightful way. It is highly enjoyable and entertaining, and its spirit draws you deep inside it.
Peter W. Sheehan is an associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting.
Rialto Distribution (Sony Pictures Classics).
Out May 26, 2011.