Volume 80, Number 9 | July 29 - August 4, 2010
West and East Village, Chelsea, Soho, Noho, Little Italy, Chinatown and Lower East Side, Since 1933

 

GET LOW
Directed by Aaron Schneider
Screenplay by Chris Provenzano and C. Gaby Mitchell
100 minutes
In theaters July 30 

How ‘Low’ Can You Go?
Duvall, Murray, Spacek give ‘Get Low’ its contemplative kick

BY SCOTT STIFFLER

 Aspiring screenwriters, take note: When the first scene of your film depicts a house burning down in the midst of a pitch black night — then a body crashes out of the second story window only to rise from the ground and, still covered in flames, walk away into the dark unknown — it’s a surefire way to get our attention. 

That scenario, from Aaron Schneider’s charismatic and involving debut feature film, is the missing piece of a puzzle which won’t be solved until the end of “Get Low.” It’s worth the wait, though — and the roughly 100 minutes between that first fire and the final, fiery revelation are every bit as intriguing. 

Robert Duvall is Felix Bush — an eccentric hermit sequestered away on 300 acres of unspoiled forest, living in a cabin/prison of his own making. Riding into town on a mule-pulled cart (when most of the 1930s townsfolk have graduated to cars or at least horses), he’s suddenly drawn back into the world of people, gossip, good deeds and bad intentions that he walked away from over 40 years ago. Bush stops into the church to inquire about a funeral — and as he goes all mountain man gruff on the preacher, a newbie salesman at the local funeral parlor (Lucas Black) overhears him. 

It’s revealed that Bush doesn’t really intend to die any time soon. But he does want to throw a wake attended by anyone in town who has a story to tell about him (which, it seems, is everyone). At that wake, he assures us, he’ll “get low” by revealing the truth behind four decades of rumors and accusations. That’s a mighty fierce tease — but the screenplay peels back just enough layers of Bush’s life to make the last act’s “how he got that way” scene credible and emotionally honest. 

Strong performances by a veteran cast play no small role in this achievement. Robert Duvall gives his most nuanced performance since “Tender Mercies” — and that’s saying something (the man’s arching eyebrows alone can outact the entire cast of the “Twilight” series). He comes armed to each scene with a quiet anger that doesn’t need much coaxing to show itself — yet resists the temptation to make his character a bitter violence-prone loner and, instead, lets that anger go from simmer to boil only when hypocrisy and cruelty drag it out of him. 

Bill Murray injects uncommon depth into the character of Frank Quinn — a funeral parlor owner driven to drink because of the unusually long life span of the townsfolk. Desperate for business, he jumps at the chance to arrange that pre-death “funeral party” for Bush. This is not Murray repeating the droll comic persona that’s made him an indie film darling over the past decade. Although droll certainly describes the character and the comic delivery, this is a unique variation on the familiar Murray theme of the smartass guy who responds to life’s absurdities with low-key, dyspeptic one-liners. Beneath it all, though, you know the guy is a contemplative sweetheart — so every misanthropic barb comes across as a world-weary punchline rather than a nihilistic damnation. Not too tart, not too sweet — that’s a thin little tightrope for an actor to walk. Murray does it brilliantly, without distracting from the work being done by others. 

With one of those others being Sissy Spacek, the compelling performances begin to stack up like cordwood. As a bygone love interest of Bush, who still has looks and charm to spare, she makes her character’s arc heartbreaking and believable thanks to a sly and understated performance that typifies this uniquely constructed film.


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