Saturday, January 1, 2011

Get Low Movie Review

Imagine you reach the end of your life as an old man in a small town. Everyone knows your name. You’re a legend. Stories are told about you across four counties. When your funeral is announced, thousands turn up to share in the celebration of your life. Now imagine it’s for all the wrong reasons – because you are reviled for being the king crazy old codger – and there you have the premise of Get Low, the feature debut of director Aaron Schneider.

Felix Bush is what can charitably be described as an ornery old recluse living in a cabin in 1930s Tennessee. Occasionally the kids from town come to get a glimpse of him or to throw a stone through one of his windows. He scares them off with a shotgun and posts a sign that reads, “No damn trespassing. Beware of mule!” It’s not clear if he’s referring to any domesticated animals he may or may not own.

Nearing the end of his life he decides to have a funeral party before he dies. He wants everyone and anyone who has a story to tell about him to come and share it. The problem is he can’t seem to find anyone with a legitimate story to tell and the local minister doesn’t know him well enough to offer anything other than generic platitudes.

What would make a man live alone in the woods for 40 years, warding off all visitors and treating everyone in the community with disdain? Felix harbors a dark secret that he has only ever shared with one other person. And it is the only story he wants told at his funeral – to finally clear the air and be rid of his shame.

It would be quite easy to take the familiar road with a character like Felix and make him an amalgam of stereotypes, but the screenplay by Chris Provenzano and C. Gaby Mitchell makes him into more of a human being than many films bother with. And played by the stalwart and always capable Robert Duvall, Felix Bush is fleshed out and metamorphoses before our eyes from real son-of-a-bitch to an elderly man with real regret and real heart.

It doesn’t look very promising that the local minister will be able to provide the kind of service he requires, but as luck would have it, a young man named Buddy (Lucas Black) overhears his request. Buddy works for Frank Quinn (Bill Murray) of Quinn’s Funeral Home, which has had a drop off in business owing to the fact that people just won’t die often enough in this small town. Quinn owes money, Buddy is a young man with a new family and Felix is looking for an unusual service. It could be wins all around if all goes well.

It’s almost impossible not to laugh or at least crack a smile when Murray makes an appearance in any movie, even one that is not played for big laughs like this one. Of course Murray has specialized of late in low-key performances. His days of going for the big laugh seem long over and he’s settled into a wonderful late-career groove taking parts that allow him to have a huge presence while blending into the scenery.

In town one day on business, Felix bumps into his old flame Mattie (Sissy Spacek, made up to look at least a decade older than her real age). Asked later how they know each other, he responds, “We had a go.” Ha! Old people say the darnedest things! There’s still a hidden spark between Felix and Mattie and she seems the only person who can crack a smile on his face.

Get Low, while starting out with a dark tone, never quite settles comfortably into a consistent one. Schneider tries to apply a lighthearted approach to the darker themes suggested by Felix’s past. The shifts are underscored by Jan Kaczmarek’s score, which alternates between slow and brooding and up tempo and light banjo music. But it’s hard to get a grasp on how seriously he wants us to take Felix’s life.

“What can we forgive?” was the overarching question in P.T. Anderson’s Magnolia, a film about past transgressions and their effects on the living and the dying. This film is not nearly as dour as Anderson’s, but it is a kindred spirit. Felix Bush forces us to ask ourselves how much regret we can live with and for how long. And when the time comes, can we die with that regret?

Unfortunately the big revelation turns out to be a big, “So what?” To be sure, what occurred in Felix’s past is regrettable, depressing and horrendous. But I have trouble accepting that it was worth decades-long self-imposed exile to the backwoods. Maybe I’m wrong. At the time these sins would have occurred (sometime in the 1890s or so) perhaps public reaction to his misdeeds would have rendered a guilty verdict. Certainly by today’s standards I’m sure Felix wouldn’t be held responsible in either a court of law or of public opinion. This effectively deflates all the veiled hints and serious looks that you have to endure to reach the conclusion.

1 comment:

  1. Felix's cavorting with a married woman would have earned him scorn. I expect he also felt guilt that his lover's husband found out about their affair and badly assaulted her. Good point about the soundtrack. It did sometimes grate.