Eugene Weekly : Movies : 8.26.10


Burning Down the Past
Get Low showcases Duvall, Murray
by Molly Templeton

GET LOW: Directed by Aaron Schneider. Written by Chris Provenzano and C. Gaby Mitchell. Story by Chris Provenzano and Scott Seeke. Cinematography, David Boyd. Editor, Aaron Schneider. Music, Evyen Klean. Starring Robert Duvall, Bill Murray, Lucas Black, Sissy Spacek, Gerald McRaney and Bill Cobbs. Sony Pictures Classics, 2010. PG-13. 100 minutes.

Felix Bush (Robert Duvall) is a scary old coot. When the old man, his face half hidden by wiry gray hair, catches a kid who’s just tossed a rock through the window of his cabin, the kid spontaneously vomits. Felix’s story begins with a striking shot of a burning house; as the camera watches, a shadowed figure runs from the ruin. These images could sit at the start of a horror film, but Get Low is something else — a Southern blend of sentiment and smarts that owes a good deal of its dry charm to its outstanding cast.

Lucas Black and Bill Murray in Get Low

Bush is the sort of old feller about whom the entire town knows a story. Whether those stories have any truth to them becomes, over the decades of Bush’s solitude, irrelevant. The legend is bigger than the man. So when he rides into town on a mule-drawn cart (it’s the 1930s, so this isn’t all that odd), no one bothers to hide their stares. Bush has come to town to make arrangements for a funeral. His funeral, to be more specific. This is enough to rattle the polite minister (Gerald McRaney), but his next request throws the minister off completely: Bush wants to have a funeral party for himself. While he’s alive.

It’ll take a more flexible man than the minister to make the funeral party happen. Conveniently, those men are just down the street. Frank Quinn (Bill Murray) owns a funeral home and bemoans the fact that people are dying off everywhere except where he is; his assistant Buddy (Lucas Black), a solid but adaptable all-American type, nudges his boss back into line when Frank’s wobbly moral foundation starts to list. Murray, with his perfectly wry delivery, has a firm grip on the more human and complicated elements of the film’s flawed characters. Duvall brings a physical sense of isolation to Bush; stiff and solitary, he seems uncertain how to hold himself around others. The warmth that starts to creep through — especially around the widow Mattie Darrow (Sissy Spacek) — is rough and unpracticed. 

Get Low gradually and enjoyably paints itself into a corner as it pieces together the secret Bush has kept for 40 lonesome years. But that story, no matter the legends it has spawned, can’t hold up under the weight of anyone’s expectations. It’s clear, as the funeral party’s arrangements move along, that whatever Bush did, it’s going to be equal parts horrible and understandable. That’s the kind of story we’re in. The landing will be gentle, not rough; the bumps are carefully timed, and no matter how much grace Duvall brings to Bush’s final monologue, the sequence is too conventional for the characters it contains. It’s a letdown that the film hangs so much on the mystery of the past, when the story of the present — as Bush prods Frank and Buddy into doing what he wants, remembers how to crack a joke and begins to see that he didn’t have to define himself just by this one piece of his history— is rich with a tart folksiness that keeps the whole thing from going soft.

Get Low opens Friday, Aug. 27, at the Bijou.