If I see any more movies this year that I like as much as I liked Get Low, it will have been a pretty damn special year for movies. I don’t see a lot of movies like Get Low. There’s a soul in it. It’s a labor of love, and it shows. It’s the kind of movie that invites the adjective “homespun” but isn’t all precious about it. It’s simple and direct, but this kind of directness and effective simplicity isn’t easy to accomplish in a movie. It’s got a career-crowning performance from Robert Duvall. It’s got Bill Murray. More on that in a minute.
Get Low is based on a true story. Two of the characters in it are directly based on real people. I’m not of the opinion that a basis in actual events necessarily lends any additional credence to movies, and I happen to think that these particular filmmakers could have made just as believable and humanistic a movie if they had made it up entirely, but it is interesting to note all the same. Sometimes truth just plain IS stranger than fiction. The reason why is people. People are eccentric and unpredictable and flawed and emotional, and both the best and the worst of them have the ability to surprise you. Get Low captures that truth.
It’s the story of Felix Bush, a man who has been living alone for forty years, and recognizing the imminent probability of his death, decides it’s time to make funeral plans. The unconventional design that he chooses, however, is to have the funeral party while he’s still alive – that way he can hear everything that’s said about him. The movie is pretty directly about the planning of that event. No frills, no tangents, no fat. Just the story of a man and his mistakes and his choices and the people around him who are trying to make sense of it all.
Get Low has a relatively small cast, driven as it is by four main characters (with a crucial fifth towards the end of the movie.) All discussion of Get Low begins and ends with Robert Duvall, who plays Felix Bush. It’s a terrific performance, impossible to forget, and while I hate to reduce something so special to less ultimately meaningful concerns like award predictions, you can be sure that you will hear more about this movie and this performance at the end of the year. Robert Duvall has had a long and profound career, and he brings a lifetime to this role. He’s convincing in the early scenes as a gruff and emotionally walled-off person who the town’s children might fear, even being from the start as recognizably and likably Robert Duvall as he is. He also has a perfect flair for the comedy of the piece, as this man comes off the mountain and warms to the baffled townspeople he encounters.
The guy who really brings Felix Bush back to civilization (as far as he does come back, anyway), is Buddy Robinson, a young assistant funeral director with a wife and young son. Buddy is played by Lucas Black, a former child actor (Sling Blade) who more recently effectively anchored Tokyo Drift and played a similarly idealistic role in the otherwise messy Legion. There’s a scene where Felix is being driven around town, and Lucas Black is sitting sandwiched between Robert Duvall and Bill Murray and somehow managing to get a word in. That’s kind of a metaphor for the whole performance – it must have been a little intimidating to be playing scenes with two living legends, but Black makes that work for the role, and it’s really pretty impressive if you think about it. His character’s unwavering optimism also serves as tangible influence over Robert Duvall’s character which feeds that aforementioned performance – if you don’t have the consistency of the first, you don’t get the glory of the second.
That goes double for what Sissy Spacek does as Mattie, Felix Bush’s former flame. Mattie is a woman who once loved Felix, but that was a long time ago. He went into seclusion and she moved on. When he comes back to town, it coincides with her own return, and their reintroduction changes his plans significantly. This character has comparatively few scenes, but Sissy Spacek is able to suggest so much history and warmth and disappointment in those few scenes. It’s not just a gratuitous love-interest role. “the one who got away” or some such. Mattie is a significant indicator of Felix Bush’s character, and Sissy Spacek’s work with Robert Duvall is brief but deeply affecting.
Veteran character actor Bill Cobbs has an even briefer, but no less significant role, as Charlie Jackson, a reverend and old acquaintance of Felix’s who plays a significant role in the movie’s outcome (and who was also based on a real person). I don’t want to give away any of the movie’s secrets so I’ll cut this paragraph short, but I do want to make mention of this warm, savvy, evocative performance in a movie that already has a few of them.
Lastly, you have Bill Murray as funeral director Frank Quinn, the man who is hired for the unconventional job of throwing a funeral party for an old cranky hermit who has lived in seclusion for four decades. Actually, Frank pursues the job with great vigor, once he sees Felix’s bankroll. It’s perfect casting. There is no one on the planet who is better than Bill Murray at playing cynics and opportunists who are hiding vast reserves of genuine emotion. There honestly doesn’t seem to be much in the script to indicate that Frank Quinn is anything less than a prototypical used-car salesman; any fondness for Felix that he develops over the course of the movie, and any of the fondness that he feels for his young protégé Buddy, is suggested in Bill Murray’s eyes alone, because his mouth is continually running with the movie’s best lines. As always, the delivery and the timing is incomparable. I’m probably the biggest Bill Murray fan I’ve ever met, but this isn’t a biased assessment, I don’t think. There is a real humanity to this role that could have been played mostly for comic relief, and it only elevates a movie that already had something special going for it.
Get Low, as I said, is deceptively simple in its construction. I’m impressed with the way that writers Chris Provenzano and C. Gaby Mitchell found ways around the fact that the story’s main character isn’t very talkative at all, at first. The movie’s dialogue feels authentic and is very memorable, but we’re already learning a lot about these characters before they start opening up. Much of that is due to the excellent work of director Aaron Schneider, who does a remarkable job with his first full-length feature. Every moment of Get Low plays genuine and true, and that only comes with a masterful grasp of tone on the director’s part. I was also struck by the look of the film – this actually looks like a movie. I know that sounds like a nonsensical comment, but only if you don’t notice how pretty so many movies aren’t, and then are treated to the visual palette created here. It made sense to me once I found out that Schneider has worked for years as a cinematographer before taking the director’s chair – he clearly has a masterful eye for composition. His work here with cinematographer David Boyd is exceptional – just look at the way those forests pop, the definition on the trees and the fallen leaves. Look at the way these faces are filmed. The very first shot of the movie is a haunting image that stayed with me long after the movie ended. It was also interesting to note that Aaron Schneider edited the film as well. If this is his first feature, I can’t wait to see what he does next.
I’ve written an extra-long review here, one that is heavy with praise and (hopefully) short on detail. The movie is worth the consideration, in my opinion. The point is that I want you to see it. Get Low is one of my favorite movies of the year, and one that moved me. It’s a tale of regret, and the ways in which people cope with that regret, both wrongly and rightly. Everyone has their regrets – even Frank Sinatra admitted to having a few – but how do you live with those regrets? It’s one of the most important questions a person can ask themselves. Get Low goes deep, but never stops entertaining. It’s a tale well told. Please give it a look.
Get Low opens today, Friday July 30th, in New York City at the Lincoln Plaza Cinema and the Regal Union Square Stadium 14, and in select theaters across the country. Click here for more details about where you can see this special movie near you.