Get Low

May 30, 2011
Get Low

Have you heard the one about the crazy old hermit with a heart of gold, whose past contains a terrible secret? If not, then Get Low may be the film for you. More likely you will recognise the type as a borderline Hollywood cliché, right up there with the reluctant gunslinger or the girl whose glamour is concealed by a pair of glasses.

The setting is a remote part of Georgia in the deep south, the time is the 1930s. Felix Bush (Robert Duvall) is an old man who has lived alone in the woods for the past forty years, acquiring a reputation as a mean, dangerous eccentric. The citizens of the local town say that he has killed men with his bare hands, and is in league with the devil.

We, the omniscient viewers, know better. From the first scenes where he fires a gun in the air to scare the kids who throw rocks at his house, we can see that Felix is a softie. He has a cosy relationship with his mule, Gracie, and is so much in harmony with Nature that Bob Brown would consider him a good candidate for the Greens.

Feeling intimations of mortality, Felix makes one of his rare forays into town, where he visits the preacher, says it’s time to “get low”, and tries to set up his own funeral. He slaps a roll of bills on the table, but is told that you can’t buy forgiveness. He has unresolved issues with God that need to be settled.

Help arrives in the form of the slippery funeral parlour director, Frank Quinn, played by Bill Murray; and his assistant, Buddy Robinson (Lucas Black). They are happy to take Felix’s money, but are surprised by his request. He wants a big funeral party while he is still alive, where everyone can come along and tell all the gossip they’ve heard about him.

As the story unfolds we realise that Felix’s real motivation is to tell his own story: to clear his conscience in front of a huge audience before he goes to meet his maker. He has a guilty secret that rises up painfully before him when he becomes reacquainted with Mattie Darrow (Sissy Spacek), an old girlfriend who has returned to live in the district.

The party, where Felix makes his public confession, is the inevitable climax of the film – or rather, the anti-climax. Despite an excellent script and a stellar cast, this low-key, backwoods drama is a strangely uninvolving affair. Perhaps this is because Get Low is the first feature film directed by ace cinematographer, Aaron Schneider. Carefully crafted and beautifully shot, it cries out for a little melodrama, a touch of violence, a burst of slapstick comedy – anything to disrupt its painstaking progress from beginning to end. It’s interesting to think what the Coen brothers might have done with this material.

The strength of the movie – and it is a very considerable strength – lies in the quality of the cast. Robert Duvall gives an extraordinary performance as Felix, conjuring up depths of personality that would never have occurred to lesser actors. Bill Murray is also brilliant in the role of Frank Quinn, which he plays with immense restraint. Even minor characters such as Bill Cobb, as the reverend Charlie Jackson, are a pleasure to watch. The only question mark lies over Lucas Black, who tends to overdo the quizzical look. The raised eyebrow, the slight grimace might seem insignificant, but repetition turns gestures into mannerisms.

Not forceful enough to be considered first-rate drama, not funny enough for comedy, Get Low inhabits that no-man’s land where a lot of good films languish in a state of semi-appreciation. The cast alone should ensure a certain degree of success at the box office and the DVD rental market, but it is not a project that inspires enthusiasm.

I feel almost ashamed to pass such a verdict because there is much to like about this film, and even more that one wants to like. It is the kind of serious, well-made movie that critics are always looking for, as opposed to the big budget, teenybopper pap that draws the crowds to the Hoyts on Saturday night.

The antithesis to Get Low is not a 3D epic about breakdancing vampires, it is a riotous, old-style B-movie, made on a shoestring, where the characters are larger than life and the atmosphere is consistently overheated. As great directors such as Alfred Hitchcock knew so well, to stick closely to characters and situations that are impeccably realistic and nuanced is to sacrifice an important element of fantasy. Perhaps with the movies, as with most forms of art, it is better to fail gloriously than to assume that quality proceeds from caution.

Published by the Australian Financial Review, March 28, 2011

USA. Rated M. 102 minutes.