August 23, 2010
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?”