Nothing is more potent than local myth and/or legend. Kept within a considered sphere of influence and fostered out of the pecking-order like gossip need for inside information, the abandoned house at the end of the road or the odd looking character who comes sauntering into the general store once a month provide evenings of inventive introspection and association. Before long, the potential truth is tarnished by an unreasonable amount of speculation and sour grapes, all of it wrapped up in the most unrealistic of fairytales. For Felix Bush, the stain of something forty years in the past has painted his hermitical existence in suggestive, sinister colors. Now, as death (or “getting low”, as he calls it) comes knocking at his reclusive log cabin door, he wants to hear what people have to say about him – good or bad.
Thus we get plans for a ‘living funeral’ that acts as a catalyst for the rest of Get Low, a coy, quaint independent period piece. Bush (Robert Duvall) ends his exile and heads into town, seeking a service from the local preacher (Gerald McRaney). When the church can’t accommodate, he lucks into an earnest salesman (Lucas Black) for the local funeral parlor. Working with the shady, cynical owner, Frank Quinn (Bill Murray), they set up the pseudo-celebration. The only requirement: everyone who attends must bring their own story about Felix – and with his sketchy history, it promises to be enlightening. Enter Mattie Darrow (Sissy Spacek), a widow who has a longstanding connection to our aging protagonist. The memories she stirs up, however, will cast a different, much more meaningful light on Felix’s final request.
Cobbled together from the Coen Brothers leftovers and sprinkled with a healthy dose of lax local color, Get Low argues for the cinematic value inherent in a consistent tone. Cinematographer turned first time feature director Aaron Schneider spends so much time creating atmosphere and fostering his fine cast’s considerable talents that he fails to find a decent story to tell. Sure, the narrative thread of Duvall’s ascetic status, how it happened, and how he has chosen to resolve it is interesting, but it’s surrounded by very little. Indeed, each supporting character is so incomplete, so sketchy in what they represent to the overall story that it actually lessens the impact of the main focus.
For his part, Duvall is grizzled and grumpy, using his years in exile as a irascible reason for being permanently pissed-off. It’s the kind of performance that will get tongues wagging come awards season, a career send-off that’s hardly as substantive as his previous creative canon. Still, he brings a stern nobility to the part, never allowing his “aw shucks” shuffle ruin Felix’s fragile core. Even when he’s acting ‘ornery’ and getting trespassers to ‘skedaddle’ off his land with a random shotgun blast, our hero is really just a sad, bitter old coot. When we learn the reasons why, they resonate, but not in the way the movie thinks they do. Instead, we wind up with a much ado about a mistake circumstance that pretends to be an major emotional twist. The confession is so sensible, it makes the previous posturing seem pointless.
Still, we do enjoy much of the journey to Felix’s enlightenment. For his part, young Mr. Black is turning into a wonderful adult actor. He brings a level of authenticity to his role as Quinn’s naive newlywed associate. He also stands in sharp contrast to his big screen boss, a constantly cutting up Bill Murray. As one of the biggest violators of the tone tenets here, the comedic actor is at times very believable, and very burlesque, as the money hungry funeral director. He gets off a few good lines, but they often seem incongruous to the situations and sentiments onscreen. Perhaps the best acting turn of them all is offered by seasoned character vet Bill Cobbs. As a backwoods preacher who knows all about Felix’s past, he’s the correct combination of levity and legitimacy. When he makes us laugh, we never doubt the movie’s intention or attitude.
As for Sissy Spacek, she seems wasted here. Indeed, Mattie’s story should parallel and play into Felix’s, not stand separate waiting for the precise moment to intersect and then disappear. As she has aged, the Oscar winner is more than capable of carrying an entire subplot, let alone a starring role. Yet she’s offered up like an accent on an already prepared dish. We welcome her presence, but the possibilities inherent in her character are all hinted at, never fully explored. As a result, her big confrontation with Duvall comes off as cold and unconvincing, as does an equally unemotional truce. In fact, much the same can be said for Get Low. You want it to reverberate with powerful conviction and feeling. Instead, it’s a nice visit with some eccentric people from the past.
Naturally, most of the blame lands of Schneider’s shoulders. Left to his own devices, he can’t come up with an original approach. Instead, he meanders around a dozen different oeuvres, arguing for their influence while failing to find his own way to reinterpret them. His control of actors is excellent, even if Murray seems airlifted from another film. He also has a wonderful eye, capturing the backwater locations and wilderness feel of his setting with undeniable ease. But as an experience, as several solid parts, Schneider can’t make Get Low gel into a cohesive whole. Instead, we keep getting tossed around from moment to moment, wondering when everything will come together. Unfortunately, it never does.
Still, there is something to be said about the reliable elements within Get Low. Again, most of the acting is spot on and the scenery is scary in its natural beauty. In fact, the parts are here to make something both sentimental and deeply moving. Instead, what we wind up with is another notch in a living legend’s acting belt, surrounded by some intriguing work by a cast of complementary components. Sometimes, the myth is much more interesting than the truth. In this case, Get Low should have been sensational. Instead, it’s rather underwhelming.