Whatever its values and demerits, noble intentions and hollow passages, the deliciously offbeat Get Low boasts one towering feature: finally, a distinctive role for the great Robert Duvall, that unique phenomenon in the history of American film acting. In this wonderful cinematic curio, unequal parts dark comedy, backwoods fable, and melancholic reflection, Duvall brings on his typical strength and subtlety, inhabiting the laconic, shotgun-toting odd bird Felix Bush, a grizzly recluse in a small rural town in Tennessee in the 1930s. Naturally, townsfolk have built up stories and fabrications about the hermit, but as a wiser head in town prevails, “Gossip is the Devil’s radio.” Old man Bush emerges from his self-imposed hermitage, heading into town with his mule and buggy in the dawning of the auto age, with a plot for a funeral party—while he’s still alive—ideas regarding clearing his name and, above all, achieving redemption.
But it’s the funeral party notion that piques the interest of the film’s storytellers and, within the tale, the work-hungry funeral director, played with pasty-faced deadpan charm by Bill Murray. We only gradually learn of Felix’s checkered past through an old lover (Sissy Spacek) and a cryptic elderly preacher (Bill Cobbs), but only in Duvall’s final, self-confessional oratory—alone, worth the price of admission—is the full story revealed.
While the film can’t seem to continually keep its—or our—focus, it has enough grit and warmth to draw us into its strange world, aided by righteous music from Jerry Douglas, getting ample cinematic mileage out of a few well-placed dobro notes. (Incidental note: Alison Krauss sings the touching “Lay My Burden Down,” written by Aoife O’Donovan, whose great band Crooked Still duded up the Lobero last Saturday).
Still and all, Get Low takes its place in the (unfortunately) slim ranks of Southern Gothic tales that have made it onto the big screen, including John Huston’s classic version of Flannery O’Connor’s Wise Blood and this year’s dark-horse indie film wonder Winter’s Bone. And with a presence as strong as Duvall in the picture, all eyes and spirits are duly engaged.