Saturday, September 4, 2010

Get Low

GET LOW *** ½
Directed by Aaron Schneider.  Screenplay by Chris Provenzano and C. Gaby Mitchell.  Story by Chris Provenzano and Scott Seeke.  Starring Robert Duvall, Bill Murray, Sissy Spacek, Lucas Black, Gerald McRaney, Bill Cobbs.  103 min.

I caught Get Low at Tinseltown yesterday after reading this article in Entertainment Weekly about Bill Murray and his disposition for being notoriously difficult to pin down.  Producer Dean Zanuck (Road to Perdition [2002]) played a risky game assuring the various “executive” and “associate” producers (i.e. financial backers) of Murray’s participation with only an oral agreement.  Thankfully it worked out and this peculiar little film was made.

The story concerns an aging hermit in 1930s Tennessee named Felix Bush (Robert Duvall) who has shut himself off from the world for the better part of 40 years, allowing stories and tall tales about his ornery, violent nature to grow in his absence.  He has a mule, a shotgun to ward off trespassers, and a picture of a mysterious young woman for company.  After the local preacher (Gerald McRaney) comes to inform him of a friend’s death, Bush decides he has some affairs to settle before his own passing.  The preacher tells him that forgiveness is free, but you have to ask for it.

While the audience wonders what past sins haunt him, Old Man Bush decides he wants a funeral for himself before he dies.  He hires the local undertaker Frank Quinn (Bill Murray) and his assistant Buddy (Lucas Black) to make the arrangements for his “funeral party,” inviting anybody who has a story to tell, which, according to Buddy, should include about 4 counties’ worth of people.  In the meantime, Felix runs into Mattie (a radiant Sissy Spacek) who is clearly an old flame not seen for many years with a story of her own.  Felix also goes out to visit an old friend, the Rev. Charlie Jackson (Bill Cobbs), but is unable to convince him to speak at the funeral, further intriguing us as to what Bush is too ashamed to tell himself.

When the confession comes, it’s almost a letdown, but Duvall imbues his performance with such authenticity that we buy it all the way.  In fact, Duvall is pretty much the whole movie here.  I was disappointed that Bill Murray wasn’t given more to do.  He’s enjoyable, of course, but the character isn’t meaty enough to require Murray’s inimitable presence.  Spacek manages to suggest years of unresolved feelings in just a few scenes, especially one where she and Duvall go toe to toe, Mattie waiting for Felix to say what’s on his mind.  There we see two superb actors at the top of their craft.

This is director Aaron Schneider’s first feature.  He’s been a cinematographer for years and won the 2003 Best Live Action Short Oscar for Two Soldiers, an adaptation of a William Faulkner short story.  Get Low looks great and suggests a convincing mood of hidden memory and melancholy, but the story, at the end, isn’t particularly resonant or moving.  It’s an acting showcase and Schneider has a cast of ringers showing what they can do.  And that’s just fine.

Of particular note is the soundtrack which should appeal to fans of O Brother, Where Art Thou?  Alison Krauss sings the closing credits song “Lay My Burden Down” which was written by Aoife O’Donovan, lead singer of the excellent bluegrass band Crooked Still.  Is an Oscar nomination in the cards there?  The score by Jan A.P. Kaczmarek (Oscar winner for Finding Neverland [2004]) features Jerry Douglas on dobro and a few songs by another neo-bluegrass band, the SteelDrivers.  Good stuff, and some new (to me) artists to explore.

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