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STUDIO: Sony Pictures Classics
RUNNING TIME: 103 minutes
- Feature commentary with Robert Duvall, Sissy Spacek, Director Aaron Schneider, and Producer Dean Zanuck
- The Deep South: Buried Secrets
- Getting Low: Getting Into Character
- Cast & Crew Q&A
- A Screenwriter’s Point of View
- On the Red Carpet
A crotchety old hermit with a secret who has been living alone in the woods for 40 years decides to organize his own funeral while he’s still alive.
Robert Duvall, Sissy Spacek, Bill Murray, Lucas Black, Gerald McRaney, Bill Cobbs
Felix Bush did something horrible 40 years ago, and it’s a secret that he has been carrying around with him ever since. He has never told anyone, and has isolated himself in his cabin in the woods for 4 decades as a sort of self-imposed punishment. His seclusion over the years has given way to many local legends being told about him, mainly by people that are afraid of him. After having a dream one night regarding his mortality, he decides to go see about holding a funeral for himself with a local priest (Gerald McRaney), wanting to “get low” with him, which is a fancy way of saying “get down to business. He has an idea about inviting people to come air their grievances and tell their stories, whether true or not, so that he may be able to forgive himself for whatever he did and hear these tales before he leaves this Earth for whatever lies beyond. It becomes more than that after awhile, however, as he enlists the services of Frank (Bill Murray), the proprietor of a funeral home and Buddy (Lucas Black), his only employee. Crossing paths with Mattie (Sissy Spacek), an old flame and Charlie (Bill Cobbs), a preacher he knew many years ago, adds a dynamic he was not expecting.
Felix Bush, played by Robert Duvall in probably the most disheveled fashion you could ever imagine if you haven’t seen him in The Road, is a man carrying around some real guilt for what he’s done. We don’t know what it is, and the clues are very subtly placed in front of us like morsels a dog might scrounge from a tablecloth. Whatever it is, it has forced him to stay away from society in the Tennessee backwoods for just about 40 years. He carries around a shotgun to scare off intruders and as we witness at the very beginning, isn’t afraid to fire it if a group of mischievous young kids come around. At first he comes off as the typical “get off my lawn, you damn young whippersnappers!” angry old man we’ve occasionally seen before but the performance by Duvall is immediately much more layered and sympathetic than that, simply because of the baggage he’s evidently carrying around. It’s written all over his bearded face. And when he has a dream, almost more of a premonition that his time is quickly winding down and he’s almost headed for the clearing at the end of the path (oddly placed Dark Tower reference, I know), he decides it’s maybe time to do something. And so as a way he can help himself reconcile his past, he decides to hold a living funeral party. To reveal too much about the rest of the film would be criminal, as it’s a slow burn. The payoff at the end isn’t the absolute greatest but it’s still very good.
First-time director Aaron Schneider, who won a Best Documentary Oscar in 2003 for his short film Two Soldiers, and also has a cinematography background, has done a pretty remarkable job with his directorial debut. The guy clearly isn’t a novice, having not only won an Oscar but worked on the tv series Murder One as a cinematographer (being nominated for an Emmy) and served as a second unit DP for Titanic. His talent is evident here, as he edited the film as well, and when you listen to the commentary or watch the other featurettes, you get an impression that this was a true labor of love for the guy. He battled to get this thing off the ground for 8 years, and stuck with it when it seemed like no one cared. A lot of times in the special features, he and Zanuck mention that no one wanted to get behind such a fresh, original idea (and one that is based on a true story..Wiki that shit!) and that’s why they had so much trouble. Can that really be true, though? They reference the fact that everything is a remake these days and that no one seems to want to finance those tiny but impactful stories. I don’t know that it’s really all that true since films like that really do still exist, but they have a point. These days, it’s hard for things to come out of nowhere and smack you in the face with their originality. A lot of stuff feels done before. I don’t think they need to outright say “people flock towards trash these days” to really get their point across, though. It’s right in front of us when we read about a crappy tv series being made into a movie or a film getting a million increasingly dull sequels or whatever. But as a wise man once said, “It is what it is”, right?
The tone that Schneider sets in this film is pretty remarkable at times, and it’s fortunate for him that he has such an amazing cast. Bill Murray gives a very restrained performance with just enough subtle attempts at comedy to make him recognizable. His character Frank is clearly looking to try and make a dime off of things, as this is of course Depression-era Tennessee. Felix decides to advertise on the radio that with a donation of 5 dollars for a raffle ticket, people will have a chance during a drawing at his ‘funeral’ to win his 300 acres of land when he dies. But Murray’s character Frank, as sleazy as you might expect the character to get, never crosses that boundary you might expect him to. He’s complimented in his role by his employee Buddy, played very effectively by Lucas Black. Let’s face facts; Tokyo Drift not withstanding, we always knew this kid would turn out great. Folks will remember him best from Sling Blade if you put a gun (or scythe) to their head, but don’t forget his role in the late, great TV series American Gothic. I really wish he’d show up in things more often. His character in this film is pretty much the character that we’re experiencing the film through, that young innocent guy with a young family who’s trying to do right by Duvall’s old curmudgeon. He drives Felix up to see Charlie, his old preacher friend who is the only other person alive besides Felix who knows what he did. And he visits him in hopes of bringing him to speak at his ‘funeral’, so that people might know he isn’t the bad guy everyone thinks he is. Veteran character actor Bill Cobbs (many, many things…you probably remember him best from NBC’s short-lived The Others). And then of course we have Sissy Spacek, playing Mattie, a woman Felix has a history with but hasn’t seen in ages. She has a somewhat small, but very much important part. What’s revealed at the end of the film is something that definitely affects her, and her performance towards the end is very strong.
I don’t want to get schmaltzy, because that’s not what this film is about. It isn’t mawkish or overly sentimental, it’s just simply about a man realizing that the time has come to deal with his sins. I think this is a solid film, almost a modern day fable, in a way, that after 8 years in development hell deserved a little more than just quietly going into the night like it did. That’s not to say it was ignored, because it wasn’t. It got really good reviews and a lot of people were pissed when Duvall was snubbed at the Academy Awards. Not only that, you could probably make an argument for Murray too. But that being said, it’s a film that definitely needs to be seen, as it’s filled with great performances by some veteran actors. It does make you appreciate those smaller stories and the low-key, subtle moments in films like this.
A trailer is of course included on the disc. Short featurettes along with the standard commentary, although Duvall is very eloquent during the commentary and it’s generally just great to hear the guy speak.
Out of a Possible 5 Stars