Set in the late 1930s, Get Low is based on an American folk tale, which is itself based on the true story of a hermit named Felix “Bush” that decides to throw himself a funeral party while he’s still alive just “to hear what the preacher had to say about [him].” Screenwriter Chris Provenzano (“Mad Men”), with co-writer C. Gaby Mitchell (Blood Diamond), took that idea and went a bit further with it, searching for Felix’s motivation. Why would someone hide themselves away for 40 years only to come out of hiding for a funeral party? Get Low has those answers and, thanks to sensational performances, tells one hell of a story.
Robert Duvall’s performance here as Felix Bush has been talked about for almost a year now after the film first premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival in September 2009. Oscar was the word on everyone’s lips at that time, but Duvall’s chance at a second acting Oscar would have to wait a year. And here we are, the film and his performance has yet to lose any momentum in all that time and it’s very much deserved.
Playing Felix, Duvall brings a rough-around-the-edges sincerity to a character we’re first introduced to as something of a feared local legend. Most of the time the legend seems larger than the man himself even though the audience is never truly in on what it is Felix has done to earn his reputation in Roane County, Tennessee. Yet we quickly learn his mere presence in town is enough to start a tussle.
Felix is a crotchety old man with a secret. He needs to get something off his chest and he needs to do it before he dies. A funeral party while he’s still alive appears to be the best way to force himself into doing it as something of a “now or never” situation. As a result, he recruits funeral home owner Frank Quinn (Bill Murray) and his young assistant Buddy Robinson (Lucas Black) to help him with the planning.
While Duvall does most of the dramatic heavy lifting throughout this film, it would be nothing without Murray’s charisma and the sentiment Black brings to Buddy. It’s just a shame for Black there aren’t many roles suited for his style of acting, but his casting here was an absolute home run.
Directed by first time feature director Aaron Schneider, Get Low shows real promise for Schneider whose short film Two Soldiers won the Oscar in 2004 and now his first feature film six years later is likely to enjoy even larger praise. Get Low never stumbles although some may say it crawls at times. However the slow melodic nature of the story-telling is part of its charm. Had this film been trimmed any shorter and had the shots not lingered so long the story would have suffered.
There’s a flow to this film that depends on each flicker of the candle and long ponderous look into the distance. Some of the melodramatic moments could have been snipped, such as a late night gravestone visit, as the emotional core of the story already existed, but it doesn’t harm the film in any kind of a major way.
Acting kudos should also be given to Sissy Spacek and Bill Cobbs — the latter especially. Cobbs is an actor that rarely fails to deliver. I can’t rattle off lists of films he’s been in, but he has a way of bringing a character to life that makes you instantly want to trust him, and learn from him. There’s knowledge and attitude behind those eyes and his short time on screen here adds just the right amount of life to his scenes.
Already discussed as a potential Oscar contender, you can count on Duvall’s name being announced come time for Oscar nominations and I wouldn’t count out some of the supporting cast just yet either. Get Low is dramatic comfort food. It goes down real easy, but also brings its emotional baggage along for the ride. I won’t say it’s a stand out perfect film, but it’s one you’d be hard-pressed not to enjoy.