© 2010 Ray Wong
It's late August, and that means the box-office is in an awkward period where all the blockbusters have come and gone, and the Oscar baits haven't arrived yet. I opted to see an independent film this week, and am surprised to see a "summer" release that is every bit of an Oscar bait, at least for the lead actors.
Felix Bush (Robert Duvall) is a hermit living in the Tennessee woods in the 1930s. Realizing that he is old and everyone dies eventually, he decides to throw himself a funeral party, while he is still alive. He asks if Rev. Horton (Gerald McRaney) would officiate the funeral. When Horton tells him he can't pay for his sins to get to heaven, Felix leaves. Their conversation is overheard by Buddy (Lucas Black), a young clerk working at Frank Quinn's (Bill Murray) Funeral Home. Buddy convinces Frank that they can use Felix's business, and Frank promotes Buddy to commissioned sales associate so Buddy can deal with Felix Bush.
It turns out Felix Bush has a bad reputation in town. Nobody really knows him, but they have heard all kinds of stories, such as how many people Felix Bush has killed in the past. They fear and loathe the old hermit. All except Mattie Darrow (Sissy Spacek), who has recently returned to her hometown after her husband died. Mattie and Felix used to have a relationship forty years ago, and she knows there's a kind, lovely man behind that fearsome hermit.
Through Buddy's sincere and genuine help, Felix begins to open up. Buddy and Frank try to promote the party, for who would want to go to a crazy man's party just to get shot? Felix also tells the town there will be a drawing: he will give away his huge timberland property after his death to the lucky winner. The town goes into a frenzy and the lottery money keeps flowing in. Meanwhile, Buddy is curious about Felix's secrets and why exactly the old man wants to throw this party.
As Felix Bush, Robert Duvall (The Road) proves once again what a pro he is. His portrayal of the hermit is at once intimidating, taciturn, witty, charming and even funny. How does an actor pull off such a complicated character, with so many different traits, and yet make us believe? Robert Duvall does just that. His performance is understated and nuanced, not at all showy, but you simply can't keep your eyes off of him. That is quite an achievement for an actor who is almost 80 years old!
Sissy Spacek (Four Christmasses) looks amazing as Mattie. She also shows tremendous emotional range and plays off Duvall excellently. There is no question her character is in love with Felix, and we can see why, and how conflicted she is about it. When Mattie learns the truth about Felix, the shock and anger and sadness and hurt are so evident in Spacek's eyes and on her face. They feel real. Now, that's great acting.
Bill Murray (City of Ember) is in good form as the shrewd businessman, but there's just something about Bill Murray that no matter what he plays, he just reminds us we're watching Bill Murray play dress-up. Murray fits the role well, though, so I can't really complain, but it's painfully clear that he has a limited range. Despite his fourth billing, Lucas Black (Friday Night Lights) actually has the second most important role in the film as Buddy, the young, ernest man who becomes Felix's unlikely friend and voice of reason. Black has been acting since he was a child, and his talent continues to remind us his day in the spotlight will come soon.
Supporting cast includes Gerald McRaney (The A-Team) as Rev. Horton, Bill Cobbs (My Summer Friends) as Rev. Charles Jackson, and Scott Cooper (Gods and Generals) as a town bully. They are all fine in their respective roles.
Written by Chris Provenzano (Mad Men), C. Gaby Mitchell (Blood Diamond) and Scott Seeke, the story is based on legends and folktales of a 1930s hermit. Whether the original story is true or not, the writers have created their own version of the events that has its own "magical" quality. Every town has its legends and tales, and the writers succeed in creating that folksy atmosphere. They also choose to take a low-key approach. The dialogue is generally sparse, and the pace is relaxed, though not slow. Much of the emotion is revealed through the characters' interactions with one another, their actions and their facial expressions. The subtleness is well done here. The story is straightforward with the central mystery tightly guarded until the end. That's created enough suspense to keep us hooked, while we learn more about the characters along the way.
Aaron Schneider's (Two Soldiers) direction is meticulous and focused. The production value is good and the costume is fantastic to throw us back to the 1930s. Schneider's background as a cinematographer also helps bring his vision to fruition, with a tight and atmospheric production. The pacing is just right with enough suspense, humor, and heart to keep us interested.
That said, this is an actor's movie. It is all about the performances and Robert Duvall, Sissy Spacek, and the rest of the cast have done a fantastic job. If you're into period movies with great characterization, mystery, and heart, you won't be disappointed with Get Low.
Stars: Robert Duvall, Sissy Spacek, Bill Murray, Lucas Black, Gerald McRaney, Bill Cobbs, Scott Cooper
Director: Aaron Schneider
Writers: Chris Provenzano, C. Gaby Mitchell, Scott Seeke
Distributor: Sony Classics
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for thematic material and brief violence
Running Time: 100 minutes
Script – 8
Performance – 9
Direction – 8
Cinematography – 8
Editing – 8
Production – 8
Total – 8.0 out of 10