Get Low‘s concept is simple, rich, and immediately intriguing. In 1930s Tennessee, a small town is surprised when an old hermit (Robert Duvall) breaks his 40 year self-imposed exile to announce, quite oddly, that he is planning to hold his own funeral party while still alive. Everyone from the surrounding area is invited, and they are encouraged to share their various stories of this near-mythical local figure.
This setup alone speaks volumes, and hints at a narrative of some resonance, picking up on the transition between old and new America, the quirky, homespun folklore that made up its oral history, and the founding legends which define its identity. After all, that 40 year time period brought with it the popular rise of electricity, motor cars, telephones and radio, tools which would supplant the old traditions, and serve the United States well on its ascent to world power.
It’s, sadly, an anticipation that Get Low, directed by debut feature filmmaker, Aaron Schneider, does not satisfy. Instead of playing on the stage of folk epic, like There Will Be Blood, we get a tale of tragedy and mystery.
Robert Duvall imbues the reclusive Felix Bush with a wonderful idiosyncrasy, as he at first revels in the hearsay that permeates the town. Yet, his manner belies deep-set emotional scars. The initial interest in the various stories and tall tales that have sprung up around his life (some say he killed a whole family, young children included. Some know no details, but are certain it was a horrible crime he committed), is soon replaced by the film pursuing the truth behind his mournful stare, giving the film a sort of gentle inevitability, replacing a larger sense of poetry with a more literal approach.
It is surprising how total this shift is, and how deeply it affects the movie’s tone and scope. Characters, initially all with potential viewpoints and nuance of their own, soon become dim reflections of the central figure. Mattie Darrow (Sissy Spacek), an old flame from Bush’s past, remains just that, and young Buddy Robinson (Lucas Black), who offers to help the old man arrange the funeral, only half develops into a surrogate son.
Robinson’s boss, Frank Quinn, fares better, but that is mostly because the role is filled by Bill Murray, who plays the funeral parlour owner as he does a ghost buster, television producer, or ageing movie star. That is, with a knowing dry wit and scene-stealing bravado. With his John Waters-style moustache, fashionable homburg, and fur-lined overcoat, he is a huckster extraordinaire, eyes gleaming at the sight of Bush’s unkempt, but sizable wad of cash.
For a time, they make a charming comic pair, with Bush cheerily undercutting convention with a sly grin or grunt, as Quinn chases the dollar signs in the preparation and promotion of the funeral. In one scene, the ex-hermit appears on the local radio station, answering the perky presenter’s questions with straightforward gruffness, but causing a stir with a surprise announcement: at the funeral, he’ll be raffling off his land, consisting of 300 acres of untouched timbre.
In one perfect moment, we see Quinn perk up at the promise of yet more profit, although we also glance something canny beneath the old man’s coarse exterior, an inkling of a mastery of PR, spin and gossip.
However, the film seems just as unconcerned about who Bush is, as it is about the culture of rumour that festered in his absence. Instead, it is merely satisfied in asking why. Why did he leave?
It leaves the conclusion a little hollow, and a little one-dimensional, as the complexity of subtexts suggested by its concept are omitted in favour of one man’s tale of grief and guilt. A sad, minor mystery which lies at the heart of this whimsical, sometimes beautiful, yet underwhelming tale of folksy Americana.
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