If Robert Duvall were some kind of cult leader we’d all be in trouble. The man is a marvel.With the tiniest of adjustments in facial expression alone he conjures such a surge of adoration that I would wade through piranha infested waters for him, pant hems hitched, without a moment’s hesitation. Consider his 1962 film debut as Boo Radley in To Kill a Mockingbird.One jolting sidestep out of the shadows, clenched jaw loosening, eyes gathering crinkles at the corners, and Duvall transforms the boogey-man of neighborhood lore into man most likely to snuggle with baby bunnies.In roughly two wordless minutes of screen time at that.You can’t blame Scout for wanting to take his hand.He’s one of two actors I’d feel compelled to squeeze like my own grandfather if I ever saw him in person (the other being Michael Caine).Sure, he played the only bastard to ever shoot John Wayne in a movie. Sure, he loves the smell of napalm in the morning. Sure, he’s had many sinister turns as an actor in his roughly fifty year career, but he can so easily wipe any bad sentiments clean with the slightest smiling squint of his eyes it’s scary.

In Get Low (trailer here) Duvall portrays a curmudgeon of a hermit, instilling fear in the townsfolk who skitter out of his way, but I never quite buy it.I’m on his side from the first dip of his chin to his chest.Okay, so he beats someone down with a beam in the street, but that guy was asking for it.You never see any other evidence that Duvall’s Felix Bush is anything but a misunderstood recluse.Well, if you don’t count the instances he levels his shotgun over the heads of children and one salesman on his doorstep, but is it Bush’s fault they don’t respect the “no trespassing” sign he nailed to his tree?It’s right there in plain sight! And, all right, full disclosure – Bush is harboring decades-old secrets of scandal and murder driving him to sob in the corner of his barn in the middle of the night, but this is just evidence that he has a conscience.He has regrets, remorse, a heart, and it’s making him do funny things – like arranging his own funeral party, to be held before he dies, for an entire town of people who despise him.And there you have the gist of the story, directed by Aaron Schneider and inspired by a 1938 funeral for a very-much-alive-at-the-time Felix Breazeale.

With the striking golden-tinged chiaroscuro of a Caravaggio painting defining the depression-era backwoods town, Bush emerges from decades of self-imposed isolation and into an era of Model A Fords and electricity to enlist the help of funeral director Frank Quinn (played with expertly understated snark by Bill Murray) and his assistant Buddy (Lucas Black, aka the kid from Sling Blade).When the plan for luring the region’s residents to share stories about Bush evolves into a land grab and Bush reconnects with childhood sweetheart, Mattie (Sissy Spacek), Get Low gets busy overselling its own mysteries: what is Bush’s real motivation in planning the funeral party, what does he really hope to accomplish, what’s making Mattie so nervous, and what’s Bush hiding? Even a few superfluous mysteries surface before trailing off into oblivion, forgotten and unanswered: is Quinn really a big-city grifter with his own agenda and who hits Buddy over the head and wrecks the funeral parlor?Perhaps only the cutting room floor knows for sure.

Get Low is one of those stories that leaves you wondering what sort of film it might have been if the viewer were privy early on to what Bush knows, if the details of his back-story weren’t being withheld to string you along and the progression of his character and his relationships were what kept you watching.As is, the answers to the mysteries that matter are eventually delivered in a tidy bundle that seems a bit underwhelming compared to the hype.Had we been more in Bush’s mind from the start, knowing what he knows all along, this moment might have been less invested in the audience’s epiphanies and more attuned to Bush’s.

Despite what Get Low tries to be, it remains a character study of Bush’s curious self-fashioned path to redemption made satisfying on the strength of Duvall’s performance.What Duvall once did for the screen version of Boo Radley in two minutes he now has the luxury of doing for Bush in a little under two hours.Which means we’re treated to seeing Duvall methodically, artfully, and almost imperceptibly shape one crusty old son-of-a-bitch into the man who laments never knowing the weight of a baby in his arms as his hands tremble empty in front of him.Cut to me in the theater seats, rolling up my pant legs and asking, “Where would you like me to wade in first, Mr. Duvall?”

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TNB Arts and Culture Editor CYNTHIA HAWKINS teaches creative writing at the University of Texas at San Antonio. Most of what she thinks she knows comes from movies, including how to tango, how to take someone down with a ballpoint pen, how to curse in French, and how to catch a moving train. Her work, on movies and otherwise, has appeared in literary journals and magazines such as ESPN the Magazine, Parent:Wise Magazine, The Good Men Project, New World Writing, Strange Horizons, and numerous alternative weeklies and anthologies. You can find Cynthia on Twitter and at cynthiahawkins.net.

26 responses to “Lackluster Script, Meet Robert Duvall. Problem Solved.”

  1. Becky Palapala says:

    He was in “To Kill a Mockingbird” AND “The Great Santini?” If they cast him as the old teacher guy in a film adaptation of “The Catcher in the Rye,” he’ll have the High School English Canon triple-crown.

    Tommy Lee Jones is my “whatever you say” guy.

    It helps that he’s pretty consistently cast as a cop/military man/other traditional hero of some sort.

    If I’m ever caught in a treacherous web of international espionage or a high-reaching murder cover-up, I hope Tommy Lee Jones is on the case.

    I mean, hell. Even Dustin Hoffman did “Outbreak,” right?

    • Cynthia Hawkins says:

      Plus there’s the Apocalypse Now/Heart of Darkness thing for the High School English Canon. Not bad.

      I love Tommy Lee Jones as well! Plus, he’s a fellow San Antonian. Extra points there.

      • Becky Palapala says:

        More of a dad figure than a grandpa figure, though. And pretty handsome before his face developed all that…um…character. My fellow Minnesotan Josh Hartnett looks a fair amount like a young Tommy Lee.

        But those Texas boys. *tsk*

        Throw McConaughey on there, too, “Sahara,” filthy surfer dude persona and all.

    • Gloria says:

      Jones and Duvall were in Lonesome Dove together – and man, were they awesome on screen together.

  2. Lisa Rae Cunningham says:

    I’ve been wanting to see this. Now I’m prematurely bummed about it… You write film criticism so well. I love your grandpa crush on Robert Duvall. My Elektra complex has belonged to Jeff Bridges since 1989, The Fabulous Baker Boys.

    So do I see it in the theater or wait for Netflix? I mean, if you could see one movie this month without a child in tow, would this be it?

    • Cynthia Hawkins says:

      Oh my goodness, I feel so responsible for your movie going happiness! I’ve answered and deleted about three times now. But, my first instinct was to tell you to wait for Netflix. There! I said it!

  3. Dana says:

    I like Robert Duvall as well. Your review brought to mind Secondhand Lions which I thoroughly enjoyed. OMG – Michael Caine is in that too!
    I’m sure I’ll see Get Low but it’s going on the Netflix queue. Your love of movies comes shining through in every thing you write Cynthia. 🙂

    • Thanks as always Dana! You are lovely!

      My mom is going to see your comment and yell at me now: “Why haven’t you seen Secondhand Lions? I keep telling you it’s good, and that lovely Dana person says so too!” She owns it, even, and keeps loaning it to me. I think had she never suggested it, I would have seen it a long time ago. Mother-daughter thing. (But I love you, mom! In case you’re reading! Which I know you are!)

  4. Matt says:

    Yeah, the reviews on this that I’ve read have more or less equaled what you say here: mediocre script elevated by Duvall’s phenomenal acting job.

    And really, the man’s brilliant. Too bad he opted out of Godfather III, as he might have made that movie actually worth watching.

    I want to see it, myself, but I think I’ll opt for Animal Kingdom instead and wait for DVD on this one.

  5. Art Edwards says:

    Lovely.

    Duvall is so good it’s almost evil. The Apostle come to mind, and as the lawyer in the Godfather. The “Sonny’s dead” scene. Mon dieu!

    This is going into my Netflix cue.

    Art

  6. Mark Nielsen says:

    You a tango fan, too? Then track down the made-for-cable, brilliant Duvall vehicle “Assassination Tango” from a few years back. He doesn’t often go for suave… but he can manage that too, when he is called on to do it.
    I did a <a href=”http://www.thenervousbreakdown.com/” Marking Time blog entry on Robert and Dennis Hopper a couple months ago, especially how many other actors they’ve worked with (waaayyy more than Kevin Bacon). Built a goofy little web including your Coppolas, your Sean Penns, and as you say, 50+ years of films in all genres for both guys. Thanks for the lowdown on Get Low. High point of my day…

  7. Zara Potts says:

    Robert Duvall is always worth twenty bucks.

    But it’s funny that you say you would squeeze him – it would never occur to me that he was in the least bit squeezable. I think having seen him in ‘The Godfather’ when I was very little, he always seemed remote to me.

    Gregory Peck was like that. My grandmother adored him (so much so that she wanted to call my uncle, Gregory, after him – my grandfather vetoed that!) But I first saw Peck in ‘The Boys from Brazil’ and from that moment on, he was forever unsqueezable.

    • Cynthia Hawkins says:

      Hmm, curious. It would seem you are impervious to the magic eye crinkles! Funny, my husband and I were just watching 3:10 to Yuma, and I commented how whenever I see Ben Foster (who plays Charlie Prince) in anything I instantly hate him. Same with Phillip Seymour Hoffman — whom everyone else adores and admires. He’s just played one too many sniveling jackasses that I can’t see him as anything else no matter how hard he tries. Robert Duvall, though, I don’t know, I still say he overcomes those unsqueezable moments. Maybe you just need to see him when he’s at his grandfatherly best 🙂

  8. Marni Grossman says:

    My mother really wants to see “Get Low.” Largely- maybe solely- because of Robert Duvall and Sissy Spacek. But while I appreciate their tremendous gifts as actors, I just can’t muster up much enthusiasm for the movie. Maybe it’s the- as you put it- “depression-era backwoods town” setting. I’m ashamed to admit that the phrase alone makes me shudder.

  9. Gloria says:

    Hi Cynthia – Don’t have time to read all the comments (I’ve barely commented on anything in a week), but in case no one has mentioned it, Terry Gross did an amazing interview with Robert Duvall recently, which I listened to and which made me want to see this movie pretty badly. I’ve never seen Apocalypse Now, but I know the napalm quote. Duvall is an actor’s actor. He’s brilliant.

    After the Fresh Air interview, I researched whether or not he’s related to Shelly Duvall. He is not. 🙂

    • Gloria says:

      Damn it, I swear that Terry Gross did the interview, but the transcript says Dave Davies. I think what happened was that during the podcast, they played not only Davies’s interview with Duvall, but also Gross’s 2006 interview with him, which is the superior of the two interviews.

  10. Simon Smithson says:

    It wasn’t until I saw the trailer I realised how much I’d always wanted to see Bill Murray and Robert Duvall in a movie together.

    I don’t even care that he’s not related to Clea DuVall. I’ll still watch it.

  11. […] written critical essays on Inception, Please Give, the Robert Duvall effect, the Academy Award nominees for Best Soundtrack, the movie formerly known as Avatar, and her own […]

  12. Art Edwards says:

    I finally saw this, and I have to admit I kind of felt all fluttery whenever Sissy Spacek came on screen. It was so good to see her, and I thought she did wonderfully in this part, even if, as you mention, she over-sold the mystery.

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