A cast of legends can’t get Oscar-winning director’s dark comedy off the ground.
As we’ve said before, Robert Duvall has played the eccentric, misunderstood loner so many times now that his screen persona has become virtually synonymous with the performance. Defining a character as a “Robert Duvall” type will in the years to come likely provide an efficient verbal shorthand for such parts, at the same time providing a benchmark against which similar performances can be measured. In the same way no one played an angsty teen like James Dean or a swaggering badass like Lee Marvin, no one plays a wily old coot like Duvall.
Get Low, the feature debut for Oscar-winning short film Aaron Schneider, lets Duvall go through the motions of his trademark performance yet again, cementing a based-on-true story about a 1930′s-era Tennessee mountain man’s odd final chance at redemption. It also features Bill Murray, Sissy Spacek, and prolific character actor Bill Cobb in parts they too could play standing on one leg. The film sinks, however, beneath arrhythmic direction from Schneider and an undercooked script by Chris Provenzano and C. Gaby Mitchell. Despite its veteran cast and wooly, lived-in production design, ultimately the film is a journeyman effort that feels unfinished and unrealized,.
Duvall plays Felix Bush, an irascible mountain man who’s kept to his own woody property for 40 years - long enough to become a local bogeyman among the nearby townsfolk; children dare each other to throw pebbles at his windows, and his infrequent visits to town offer an occasion for gossip. But Bush is getting old, and fearing his impending demise he contacts the local minister (Gerald McRaney) for help in staging a “funeral party” in which guests will share the lore he’s acquired over the long, lonely years. When the minster refuses, Bush turns to the town funeral parlor managed by Frank Quinn (Murray), a semi-hucksterish salesman fled into the hinterlands after an unhappy divorce in Chicago.
Desperate for business, Quinn agrees to Bush’s plan, even helping him orchestrate publicity for the event. When Bush announces on a radio program that he’ll raffle off his 300 acres of virgin timber woods at the party, expectations and attendance begins to snowball. Amid the ensuing hoopla Bush is reunited with old flame Mattie Darrow (Spacek), who’s returned to town after the death of her husband. There’s a spark of deferred romance between the two, and the rumpled Bush is still able to charm her until secrets of a long-buried affair come to light. Meanwhile he’s also restarted communication with a distant preacher (Cobb) who’s aware of his shameful past but reluctant all the same to grant him the absolution he more or less demands.
They mystery of that affair drives the script towards its climax, when Bush finally comes clean with the assembled townsfolk about the fateful night that drove him into seclusion. Interestingly, and not completely successfully, the revelations are presented not as narrative flashback but as a long, rambling address by Bush to the crowd. Duvall is a master actor, of course, able to command attention simply by opening his mouth. But as presented the revelations feel anticlimactic, and too familiar to gather much shock value or depth of tragedy. For as well as Duvall carries his character’s secrets, the secrets themselves are strangely inert, and rote.
Schneider won the Academy Award for Best Live Action Short Film in 2004, for adopting the William Faulkner short story “Two Soldiers.” Get Low, with its hinterlands setting and impoverished atmosphere ripe with secret passions and desperation, is by its nature and scope Faulknerian to the point of derivation. But the film stops short of dwelling on the psychological darkness that motivated so many Faulkner characters – good and evil alike – in favor of a redemptive ending that falls flat for that exact lack of character depth. Bush confesses and everything more or less falls into place, and everyone gets what they want.
There also sometimes doesn’t seem to be enough story to stretch the plot through to its 103 minute runtime. Scenes drag on, and plot elements are introduced but not fleshed out or followed through. The funeral home is burglarized, but the thief is never revealed; Bush’s confrontation with a local bully implies forthcoming retribution that doesn’t materialize. Of the principal characters, Quinn’s assistant Buddy (Lucas Black) has lots of screen time but his importance to the events remains opaque.
Of all the performances, it’s only a slight surprise to find Murray doing the best work, investing yet another sad sack with subtle gestures of compassion, anxiety, and fear. Quinn is a lifelong salesman, not proud of his work but not ashamed of it, either, and Murray seems at home in that sliver of acute self-awareness (Small wonder. After a decade of superb dramatic work he’s still largely known for comedies he made twenty-five years ago.) As we used to say about Jeff Bridges, that Murray doesn’t have an Oscar yet is a more damning comment about the Oscars than it is about Bill Murray. Duvall, Cobb, and Spacek are handsome and comfortable in handsome and comfortable roles, and Black is workmanlike.
Ultimately, Get Low is a modest film. Modestly budgeted, with modest aims and modest accomplishments, it’s entertaining enough and not too much of a disappointment to feel as if you’ve wasted your time. Its cast and crew didn’t waste time making it, either, and Schneider could yet prove himself a director to watch. For the film to be better, with the exception of Murray everyone might have set their sights a little higher.
- Michael Kabel