First-time feature director Aaron Schneider’s Get Low (2009) is a good little movie that is apt to seem even more than that thanks to the performances of Robert Duvall, Sissy Spacek and Bill Murray. They turn this good movie into a must-see movie.
The story is grounded in the actual 1938 event where a Tennessee man named Felix Breazeale, who apparently sometimes went by Felix Bush, did indeed throw his own funeral. But screenwriters Chris Provenzano and C. Gaby Mitchell are really more interested in who Felix was and why he did this than the event itself. Since nobody really knows the answers, they opted to create their own Faulkner-esque bit of Southern Gothic mythology. While they fall a bit short of the gentleman from Mississippi, it’s a credible attempt—although one that feels less authentic and more contrived than the real thing. But it serves as a perfectly serviceable vehicle for its three main passengers.
Duvall, of course, plays Felix Bush (the movie settles on that name), a curmudgeonly old hermit about whom little is actually known, but around whom many unsavory myths have arisen. Generally, Felix is seemingly content to keep to himself in his modest cabin, though his seclusion is occasionally interrupted by kids encroaching on him. The one incident we see results in his decision to change his “No Trespassing” sign to one reading “No Damn Trespassing”—apparently to show that he means business.
But one day Felix goes into town to the local church where a man named Buddy (Lucas Black, Legion) crosses his path. Buddy notices the old man has a wad of money, which he then mentions to his deeply broke employer, local mortician Frank Quinn (Murray), who enthuses about the prospect of “hermit money.” Frank is in need of a customer, since the death rate in the town seems to be small—unlike Frank’s hometown of Chicago where “people know how to die.” The idea of an old man with a lot of money is very appealing, so Frank decides to have a reluctant Buddy make the pitch to the old boy for planning ahead. This is how the unusual notion of a funeral for a living man (a mere detail to Frank) enters Felix’s head.
The larger portion of the film concerns planning this “funeral,” humoring the difficult Felix (“Does it occur to you that he’s awfully articulate when he wants to be?” Frank asks Buddy at one point), and hinting at Felix’s past. This last mostly concerns Felix’s relationship with the recently widowed Mattie Darrow (Spacek), with whom Felix casually admits he once “had a go.” But there’s more—like the nature of his relationship with Mattie and the real reason behind this funeral idea. Most of it works, and when it doesn’t—the actual revelation is staged very awkwardly—the actors almost make you think it does, or at least make you not care very much.
The overall atmosphere of the movie is quite authentic. This feels like a small Southern town during the Depression, though the term “Depression” never crops up. The same sense of place that marked Schneider’s Oscar-winning short film Two Soldiers (2003) is very much in evidence. Better still, the actors all seem to truly inhabit the world of the film. This is true even when the screenplay plays to the predictable. It’s rare that the characters do anything truly surprising, but they retain their reality and the reality of the movie by seeming to be far less sure of what they’ll do than we are.
Ultimately, Get Low is an appealing film and a splendid showcase for its stars. It gets by on charm and heart—two quantities that are often hard to come by. Rated PG-13 for some thematic material and brief violent content.