If I had to summarize Get Low in two words, they’d probably be
“Memento mori.” The entire film is a meditation on death and all that
it entails, such as inevitability, uncertainty and repentance. If you’re
old, you can add to the list obsolescence, loneliness and a general
feeling of misplacement in a rapidly changing world increasingly filled
with younger people. Still, the movie doesn’t address these issues or
the larger subject of death in a particularly morbid way. Instead, it
matter-of-factly states that we’re all going to die while implicitly
asking what the audience plans to do about it.
This film is the story of Felix Bush, played by Robert Duvall. Felix
is an old forest hermit, holed up by himself in a forest for 40-odd
years. Everyone in the neighboring town is scared and angry of him for
stories that may or may not be true. Finally, some preacher visits
Felix’s cabin to deliver the news that an old friend is dead because “he
just got old.” This, for perhaps the first time, gets Felix to thinking
about his own senescence, not to mention his life and its imminent end.
So Felix goes into town to start setting up “a funeral party.” A
celebration to remember not a life past, but a life waning. He plans to
invite anyone with a story to tell about him, holding a lottery for the
inheritance of his land to drive up attendance. At first, it seems that
Felix is doing this so he can hear the tall tales about him that
everyone is too cowardly and polite to say to his face. Later on, we
realize that he’s doing it so someone will tell the story about him that
he’s too cowardly and proud to tell personally.
That Felix tells his big secret story shouldn’t come as any surprise.
Moreover, the secret itself is actually quite beside the point. The
important thing is that he finally gets the gall to publicly confess,
apologize and ask for forgiveness while he still can. This is a key
reason why the final confession is a rare positive exception to the rule
of “show, don’t tell.” The other reason being that the monologue is
beautifully delivered by Robert Duvall.
I know it’s not exactly a stretch for Duvall to be playing an elderly
man, but he came to this role with everything he’s got. This is an
actor trying with every fiber of his being to sell us a wily old enigma
who knows that he’s close to death but doesn’t know how close. Felix
Bush is a character who always has the audience’s sympathy, even though
he’s very aggressive in keeping his thoughts, actions and history
private. The entire movie is about discovering just who this man is and
Duvall makes the journey compelling to watch.
Bill Murray also appears as the funeral home director who puts on
Bush’s party. Frank Quinn got my attention at the outset with the
observation that his funeral home isn’t making any money, despite the
fact that he provides a service everyone uses. This man is a slimebag
who will (and has) sold anything he can get a decent price for. Still,
it’s worth noting that he doesn’t cheat or steal and he always holds up
his end of a bargain. So he’s an honest slimebag. It sounds like
something of a contradiction, but no one can do dark humor like Bill
Murray can. Like Duvall, Murray brought everything to this role. Every
year of his life, every comic skill and every dramatic method he knows
is clearly visible onscreen. It’s fascinating to watch, really.
Then there’s Sissy Spacek. Her performance as Bush’s former flame is
simply a revelation. The character of Mattie Darrow could only have been
played with all of the baggage and wistfulness that comes that comes
with being an older woman and Spacek totally delivers. And yet she plays
this role with such energy, such vivacity, such beauty and charm that
there were times I thought I was looking at a woman half her age. It’s
As a counterpoint to all the age and impending death, we have Buddy
Robinson, played by Lucas Black. Robinson is a younger man with a
beautiful wife and an infant son. He’s Quinn’s assistant, doing his job
with ethics and a respect for the client that nicely counters his boss’
apathy and greed. Robinson also serves as a sounding board for Bush,
acting as the first new friend that the older man has likely had in the
past forty years. He may be the least memorable of the main characters
and I’ll readily admit that his primary job is to make Duvall and Murray
look good, but he excels at that without remotely embarrassing himself.
Kudos for that.
I could talk about the technical aspects, but I really don’t see the
point. The movie is clearly an Oscar vehicle for Duvall and Murray above
all else and everything in this movie revolves around its central cast.
Fortunately, this is a damn strong cast with roles that are seemingly
tailor-made for them. This film allows the actors to embrace their age
instead of forcing them to pretend they’re a decade younger and this
works to the benefit of all involved. I find the film comparable to Crazy
Heart, another Duvall-produced Oscar vehicle about aging and death.
Statue-baiting aside, Get Low is still a very good movie with
poignant observations on death as seen by wonderfully sympathetic
characters. The film hits the sweet spot in which the film isn’t so
serious about death that it’s morbid or boring, but not so flippant
about mortality that it becomes disrespectful. It’s a charming film,
wonderfully acted. I recommend it.