The following review originally was written for The Parallax Review, a film review site of which I was the co-founder and managing editor. I have decided to collect the writings I did for The Parallax Review and preserve them here. I will be posting a few of these older pieces every week. My review of Get Low was for the “In Theatres” section of The Parallax Review.
by Matt Wedge, Managing Editor
Get Low opens with a haunting, horrifying image. It’s the dead of night and a farmhouse is consumed by fire. A lone figure, aflame, leaps from the second floor window and disappears into the night, leaving the house to be destroyed by the fire. It’s a stunning shot to begin a film with, so it’s not surprising that the rest of the movie fails to live up to such a dramatic image. Still, it delivers as a low-key character study with some very good acting.
Felix Bush (Robert Duvall) is an aging hermit living in the backwoods of 1930s Middle America. The locals are afraid of him, having heard overblown gossip and stories all their lives about his dangerous and violent nature. When he realizes that his health is failing him, he decides to have a funeral while still alive. To this end, he ventures into the nearest town to make his plans. There he meets Frank Quinn (Bill Murray), owner of the local funeral home, and his assistant, Buddy (Lucas Black). Felix tells them that he wants a party for his funeral where the locals can gather to tell all the outrageous stories they have heard about him. In dire financial straits, Frank is only too happy to take Felix’s money and give him any kind of funeral he wants. Buddy, on the other hand, finds the business slightly distasteful and begins operating as Frank’s conscience, making sure the funeral doesn’t turn into an exploitative free-for-all. To add a dash of drama to the proceedings, Felix’s old flame, Mattie (Sissy Spacek), reconnects with him, forcing him to confront a terrible truth for which he has been punishing himself over the last forty years.
Get Low works best when it focuses on old wounds that refuse to heal and the need for forgiveness or redemption. Felix is a man haunted by the past, and he sees the party as the perfect forum to unburden his soul and ask for forgiveness for his past mistakes. Likewise, Frank regrets his business and family failures. Driven from Chicago to the small town in an attempt to start over, he needs Felix’s funeral to keep from being forced to move on again. It’s a subtle twist that emotionally invests the audience in both men and adds just enough forward propulsion to keep the film from becoming too laid-back.
Duvall, Murray, and Spacek are reliably good. They find just the right notes of humor and pathos in their characters. But it’s Black who turns in the most surprising performance. A talented child-actor best known for his turn in Sling Blade, he has grown into a true screen presence. As a man torn between honoring his moral compass and providing for his family, he operates as the emotional center of the film. His attempts to make sure that everyone gets what they want are obviously in vain, but his sincerity always rings true. Earnestness is a difficult quality to portray without coming off as idiotic or annoying. Black pulls it off with true naturalism.
First-time feature director Aaron Schneider is a veteran cinematographer, and he shows a great eye, creating some memorable images in addition to the opening fire (the shot of Felix entering town for the first time is breathtaking). Unfortunately, he makes some rookie mistakes with the third act, missing opportunities for character moments and creating awkward beats that make little story sense. Even with these mistakes, he is wise enough to let Duvall’s performance take center stage when it comes time for Felix to unburden himself to the townspeople.
Get Low may be trafficking in familiar themes and characters, but there is a power in its simplicity. It’s a credit to the film that I was fairly certain how things were going to turn out but still remained interested and entertained. Helped along by gentle humor and good performances, it’s a familiar but well-told redemption story.
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