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Get Low is a quiet character study populated with ludicrous personalities who may have seemed more at home in a backwoods comedy. All the farcical elements are here. There’s a violent, reclusive loner with an epic beard, the loner’s former lover, a funeral director on the verge of bankruptcy, a slow-witted funeral assistant, a no-nonsense Southern preacher and a balled-up wad of greasy, delicious hermit money. The whole plot is rife with absurdist one-ups-man-ship, but in taking the time to appreciate and laugh with (not at) these preposterous eccentrics, director Aaron Schneider sacrifices little in the way of humor and creates a compelling, honest story that’s just as funny and touching as its goofy, wounded characters.
Felix Bush (Robert Duvall) has been living alone in the woods for forty years. As typically happens with these sorts of self-sentenced exiles, the rumors as to exactly why a man would choose unrequited isolation over the company of others have become a local bonding point for the townsfolk and their hooligan children who bravely risk shotgun attack to sneak onto his property. Many suspect cold-blooded murder, or murders, but the truth, way over yonder in the minor key, is never quite as fun as the speculation. Felix agrees. He shows up at the local church with a fist full of cash asking the preacher to put on a funeral for him where he could listen to all the tall, possibly slanderous, tales. The pastor refuses, but the assistant (Lucas Black) to local funeral director Frank Quinn (Bill Murray) overhears the conversation and passes word up to his boss.
Quinn Funeral Home is going under. “What do you do when people won’t die?” Frank wonders. They didn’t have any problem dying in Chicago, but in a small town where people aren’t in a hurry to do anything, these things tend to take time. Time’s not something Frank Quinn’s funeral home has; so, he sets off to Felix’s cabin to convince him he could put on one hell of a funeral party. He can. If there ever existed a man who could convince people to tell stories about a hermit who scares the BeJesus out of them, it is Bill Murray’s slippery, quick-witted Frank Quinn. But who eulogizes a living fable? And who’s there to care?
These answers come from the two people who really know Felix Bush, the only ones who remember him before he became a dangerous curiosity. The first is an aging Illinois pastor (Bill Cobbs) preaching out of a church Felix built with his bare hands. It’s the most beautiful piece of craftsmanship he’s ever seen, but old wounds patched over only by time never really heal. Mattie (Sissy Spacek) is a little more forgiving. Felix tells Quinn they “had a go” back in the day, but their relationship is, or at least was, clearly more than that. He was once “the most interesting man she’d ever met”, but now he’s a hermit throwing his own funeral. You can’t fall in love with the hermit, at least without altering his fundamental characteristic.
Like Tim Burton’s lovely Big Fish, Get Low is a film about stories. More specifically, it’s about one story, the only one the locals haven’t heard and the only one that could drive the most interesting man in the world deep into the woods to escape its haunting shadow. Felix knows it well, he’s punished himself with four decades of solitude to atone. The preacher knows it, he’s abandoned his most devoted parishioner to lock it deep inside. Mattie suspects she may know too, but seeing the best in people sometimes means ignoring the obvious. The truth is never quite as fun as speculation, especially when it’s cloaked in your own past.
All the great films have a certain detachment about them. They don’t manipulate their characters so much as trust them enough to live. Get Low is set in the past, in a town where the people aren’t in a hurry to die. They don’t walk so much as amble, tell stories so much as confess long-winded anecdotes. Felix wants to do things at his own pace. He wants to tell his secret on his time, when he’s ready, if he ever will be. Get Low has the confidence to let him.
“It must have been tough living here by yourself,” Mattie tells Felix. “The first thirty-eight years were the hardest,” he replies. She laughs, and I did too. Not because it was funny, but because I wanted her to laugh. In that moment, her laugh was all that mattered. That’s all that ever matters.