Film Review: Get Low

Appalachian hermit stages his own funeral in a carefully paced showcase for Robert Duvall and an estimable supporting cast.

A tall tale built around a true story about a hermit who staged his own wake, Get Low gives viewers the chance to appreciate once again how fine an actor Robert Duvall is. Slow, even deliberate, the film boasts an excellent supporting cast and impeccable period details. Too modest in scope to attract much mainstream attention, it is still a worthy addition to Duvall's resume.

Set in the 1930s South, the film opens with a puzzling house fire, then introduces Duvall as Felix Bush, an elderly loner who lives in a log cabin in the woods. This is Duvall in full curmudgeon mode, spitting out his lines and hardening his features into something approaching disgust. (Standing next to a "No Damn Trespassing" sign, he points a shotgun at an intruder and growls, "It's a hard life if you can't read.") But Bush also realizes that he is no longer self-sufficient, and is frightened of both his mortality and a long-hidden secret.

Religion, in the form of a outgoing but stern minister (Gerald McRaney), offers no consolation. A chance encounter with Buddy (Lucas Black), a new father and a mortician's assistant, leads Bush to undertaker Frank Quinn (Bill Murray). Here Bush announces that he will finance an open party for his funeral, inviting everyone in the county to enter a raffle to win his farm.

Before the party, Bush will meet up again with his one-time fiancée Mattie Darrow (Sissy Spacek). Unwillingly at times, Bush is drawn back into the world, forced to grapple with the consequences of decisions he made as a youth. Sitting in Mattie's parlor, fumbling to explain why he left her, Bush tries to atone for years of hurt and neglect. It is a scene suffused with remorse, one of several emotionally jagged moments in the film.

Get Low climaxes with Bush's confession, a long, harrowing account of what happened the night of the fire. Reportedly shot in one take, it is a tour de force for Duvall, who throughout the film delivers a master class in digging to the heart of a role. The fact that this could very well be his last starring part adds another level of melancholy to the story.

Get Low has its flaws, including some slack subplotting and the filmmakers' tendency to fetishize props and costumes. But the pleasures of watching Murray play with the timing of his lines, or Spacek as a warm, lustrous widow, more than offset the film's contrivances and dead ends. Duvall remains one of the best actors of his generation, with a remarkable body of work that stretches over five decades. He is the best reason to see Get Low.