Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Review: "Get Low"

"I built myself a jail and put myself in it for 40 years," is how renowned hermit Felix Bush describes his self-imposed exile. Now grown old and feeling Death's hand tightening its grip, he wants one last furlough so he can throw himself a huge funeral, with himself as the (living) guest of honor, before it's time to "get low."

In olden days -- or at least the cinematic reflection of them -- every town had someone like Bush: He's far more spoken about than spoken to, with dark stories of his deeds building upon each other, one generation to the next.

We'd call them outcasts, except hermits like Bush have removed themselves from society voluntarily. Absent any concrete reason for shunning them, people create their own, until the truth is buried under a slow avalanche of whispers.

Robert Duvall got his start in movies nearly a half-century ago playing one such recluse, Boo Radley in "To Kill a Mockingbird," and "Get Low" completes the circle.

Imagine if Jem and Scout had never met Boo, but grown up continuing to feed his mystery, and bequeathed their fears and questions to their own children: The result would be Felix Bush.

Stories about him abound: That he's secretly rich, or that he once killed several men with just his fists. One day in the 1920s Bush hitches up his mule and wagon and rides into town, and the folks of Caleb County act as if Ichabod Crane has come to call. He's a ghost, and a legend. People have grown so comfortable with the mythology surrounding Bush, they have no idea what to do when the actual man presents himself.

But Bush has business to conduct: He wants to arrange his own funeral, where people can come together to share their stories about him. Finding no satisfaction with the local reverend (Gerald McRaney), he turns to the local funeral home, owned by recent transplant Frank Quinn.

Quinn, deliciously played by Bill Murray, is disturbed by his clientele's reluctance to avail themselves of his services: Business is slow. "One thing about Chicago, people knew how to die -- shot, drowned, run over ... whatever it took."

Quinn is at first put off by Bush's unusual request to attend his own funeral, but is something of a flimflam man and desperately wants the business. "Ooooo ... hermit money," he chants as they first drive up to Bush's remote shack.

But his young protégé, Buddy (a solid Lucas Black), has qualms. As he gets to know Bush, his fears settle into something like sympathy for the ornery old coot. He grows especially worried when Bush announces that he will raffle off his prime 300 acres, and cash starts deluging the funeral home. "Money makes people do funny things," Buddy says, and we can feel him inwardly turn toward Quinn when he says this.

Two other notable characters, wonderfully played by veteran actors, crop up: Mattie (Sissy Spacek), whose history with Bush goes back far enough to pierce his shroud of mystery, and Charlie Jackson (Bill Cobbs), an old preacher who is his only friend and confessor.

Director Aaron Schneider and screenwriters Chris Provenzano and C. Gaby Mitchell recognize this is an actor-driven film, less about a narrative progression than the richness of individual scenes shared by a handful of interesting characters. I enjoyed the film's bleak look and period authenticity, though its conclusion feels too tidy.

It's the complex, yet grounded performance by Duvall that gives the movie its weight and grit. When he first appears, Bush is nearly monosyllabic and impenetrable, but as he grows used to being around people again, a more layered creature emerges from this shell.

Duvall shows us the man who has reveled in being a hermit and is terrified of letting anyone in, but craves the peace he knows he will only find in the company of others.

There's a great scene at the very beginning where, after being pestered by some local boys, Bush takes down his old "No trespassing" sign and puts up a new one: "No damn trespassing! Beware of mule." The oddity of that threat hides an invitation.

3 stars out of four

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