One can practically hear the Oscar telecast’s orchestral music cuing up at the close of Robert Duvall’s every scene in Get Low, what with his role—as a mysterious hermit in 1930s Tennessee who plans to stage his own funeral before his death—the type that’s been designed, down to its measured beats of dialogue, to garner year-end accolades. Aaron Schneider’s debut is a down-home Americana fable executed with restraint and decorum, from its patient rhythms and lovely CinemaScope cinematography to its folksy score of fiddles and violins. Quiet and precise, it’s a character drama that treats modesty as a virtue in and of itself. Yet for all its subdued notes and slowly teased-out revelations, such reserve functions as its own means of crude underlining, with every muted momentous moment, hushed word, and gentle incident in Chris Provenzano and C. Gaby Mitchell’s creakily conventional screenplay coming across as if in bold font. Schneider assumes that volume and pacing alone are enough to legitimize clichés, a mistake that, despite an illustrious cast that treats its two-dimensional parts with respect and empathy, renders his tale the stuff of formulaic prestige-pic mush.
But wait, one can already hear defenders cry, Get Low is based in part on a true-life story! Yes, though this fact serves to reinforce the oft-proven notion that reality, when configured (and reshaped) for fictional purposes, can seem as corny and superficial as the lamest made-up fantasy. As in The Living Wake, Schneider’s film focuses on an enigmatic kook (or is he?) intent on organizing and attending his funeral services, though unlike that indie’s manic eccentricity, bathos is the prime mood struck here, as the saga of Felix Bush (Duvall) is structured as one long, slow buildup to the carefully guarded disclosure of the reason the recluse has been shut away on his 300-acre farm for the past 40 years. After an opening shot of a man, his body aflame, fleeing a burning house, we’re introduced to Felix as a backwoods monster seen in shadow terrifying a kid who’s thrown a rock through his window, the scene ending with Duvall stepping into the light to reveal a long, straggly white beard and cold, hard eyes that quickly mark him as a scary hillbilly full of get-off-my-lawn fury.
That anger leads him to post a No Trespassing sign that also makes mention of the beloved mule with whom he regularly converses, a bit of oddball behavior that immediately begins softening the character into his true grumpy-but-endearing wounded-bear shape. That process is furthered by a trip into town in which respectably dressed people stare in disapproving gossipy wonder at the seldom-seen man—who, bucking the thriving automobile trend, still travels by mule-driven buggy—as Felix tries to convince the local pastor (Gerald McRaney) to help him find inner solace by coordinating his own funeral, and then beats up a young, strapping local man who accosts him with “We don’t want you around here”-style denunciations. From there, Get Low further humanizes its boogeyman-ish center of attention by having Felix hire down-on-his-luck funeral home owner Frank Quinn (Bill Murray) to execute his end-of-life party plans. That event will include a raffle for his lucrative property, and will also, Felix hopes, feature others telling stories about himself, mainly because he seems unable to recount his own story and, in the process, get his Big Dark Secret—the one that involves the woman whose picture he constantly mutters to in his remote log cabin—off his chest.
As arrangements are made, Felix befriends Frank’s honest assistant Buddy (Lucas Black) as well as reunites with former flame Mattie (Sissy Spacek), twin relationships after years of solitude that further push the protagonist, now clean-shaven and nicely dressed, toward confrontation with past demons. Duvall embodies Felix with a loose, comfortable scraggliness that masks profound internal pain, peppering his spartan conversations with lots of low murmurs, grumbles, sighs, and heh’s and yeah’s that, when coupled with his preference for speaking primarily in maxims (e.g. “You don’t listen, you don’t hear nothing”) reinforce the character’s fundamental phoniness. Duvall’s performance is heartfelt and understated but, like Schneider’s film on the whole, never subtle; for all his calmly developed tics and low-simmering desires, Felix is transparently, dully obvious, a creaky archetype in search of Atonement, Forgiveness, Redemption, and Peace. Duvall’s underplaying is its own brand of overplaying, and thus despite his refusal to burst into crazed histrionics, his turn is as showy as Jeff Bridges’s in Crazy Heart, and ultimately in service of a character whose upward-trajectory is of a stock sort, naturally culminating in a climactic speech in front of hundreds that allows him to elucidate the narrative’s mystery with liberating tears.
Unfortunately, by the time of this cathartic confession, the film has long since abandoned any sense of emotional realism, embracing in its place rote plot mechanics that tug at the heartstrings in familiar, contrived ways, most of which involve morsel-sized hints about Felix’s traumatic history delivered by, among others, a resentful aged preacher (Bill Cobbs). Staying one step ahead of Get Low‘s story, however, is a task made so easy by the script’s A-B-C clues that there’s no juice to the proceedings, nor much in the way of surprise regarding Felix’s development from mountain-man spook to sympathetic human being. Unlike Spacek’s Mattie, a cardboard cutout who exists only in relation to Felix, Schneider smartly gives both Black and Murray’s characters a bit of independent life. Yet even so, both are still sketched in shorthand, so that the frequent sight of Black’s wife and new baby reinforce his family-values goodness, and Murray’s thin mustache accentuates his potential shadiness. As befitting his considerable talents, Murray manages to squeeze every bit of humor from the scant opportunities he’s given. Nonetheless, so heavily invested is the film in salvation-of-the-soul uplift that he eventually recedes into the background, taking with him a briefly suggested better film—in which Frank murders the area’s unnaturally healthy citizenry to help prop up his failing business—that would have been far preferable to this award-baiting schmaltz.