Death of the party – Get Low review

Get Low – Starring Robert Duvall, Bill Murray and Sissy Spacek. Directed by Aaron Schneider. Rated M. By Simon Miraudo.

T.S. Eliot said the world would end “not with a bang but with a whimper”. That certainly seemed true this past weekend, when evangelist Harold Camping’s prediction of a fire-and-brimstone rapture engulfing the entire universe turned out to be as prophetic as Charlie Sheen’s assumptions that he would be invited back to star on Two and a Half Men. Although the universe didn’t come to an end – and thank goodness for that – the threat of the apocalypse certainly cast a pall over the screening of Aaron Schneider’s tale of mortality, Get Low. How ironic that I might have spent my last day on Earth watching a film about a man readying himself for the sweet embrace of the grave. There are worse ways to spend your final hours. Had Camping suggested the world would end a few months earlier – and been correct – I might have had to accept the fact that Battle: Los Angeles would be the last film I ever saw. But if any movie would make me pray for a swarm of locusts to swallow me whole, that would be the one.

According to its poster, Get Low is based on a “true tall tale”. A hermit by the name of Felix Bush (Robert Duvall), having spent forty years in self-imposed exile in the woods, employs a couple of morticians, Frank Quinn (Bill Murray) and Buddy Robinson (Lucas Black), to organise for him a funeral. Seems like a reasonable enough request. Felix has the cash, and Frank and Buddy – confounded by the lack of deaths in their town of late – are desperate for a well-paying job. The catch is that Felix doesn’t plan on being dead for the funeral; he would much rather attend, alongside all the townspeople that fear him so. Apparently this really happened back in 1938, and just like in the film, the hermit made no secret of his not being dead. The version of the legend that I’m familiar with – and the version that makes sense – is that the pre-corpse attends the funeral in secret; that way they can finally discover what people say about them when they no longer fear retribution. Felix has no interest in such duplicitous behaviour. He knows that everyone in town thinks he’s a vile old coot, and he doesn’t really give a damn. Instead, he wants everyone to come so that he may reveal to them a secret that will explain why he has stayed in isolation for all these years.

As if it even needs to be said, Robert Duvall really is great as Felix Bush; he reveals himself so slowly and steadily, as to unveil facets of his character and personality only when he sees fit. It’s a performance that deserves a better screenplay. Writers Chris Provenzano and C. Gaby Mitchell have taken this legend and expanded it admirably, leaving out one vital element: a motive. Why does Felix want to share this secret with the entire town? As is established, he truly doesn’t care what they think about him. He certainly doesn’t seek God’s forgiveness either. Why stand up in front of a crowd after forty years to share something so personal? Because it offer a nice cathartic climax? That’s not quite enough. It doesn’t help that there really is no sense of community in this film. Although the masses turn out for Felix’s fake funeral, we’ve barely met any of them prior to this moment. Save the final sequence, I would have believed the town was only inhabited by about six or seven other people. Hell, they’re all hermits!

Although the film’s finale left me wondering ‘why?’, the rest of the picture is well-performed enough to warrant at least one pre-apocalypse watching. Duvall gives us the sense that Felix is more than just a crazy person, or worse, a manipulative PR machine (he’s surprisingly adept at recruiting people to come to his morbid little shindig); he is a man who knows he’s on the cusp of death, and is ready to make amends. Although his reasoning is murky, the performance is convincing. Murray employs his sharp-tongued/sad faced shtick to devastating effect. Sissy Spacek is also – expectedly – excellent as a former flame of Felix’s. First time feature director Schneider offers a deft touch, although the film’s tone wavers unnervingly between melodrama and aww-shucks-quaintness. What else can I say? It’s time to Get Low with Duvall, Murray and Spacek! (Forgive the clichéd finale; all this rapture talk has me contemplating my own mortality, and I sure would like to get quoted on a DVD cover before the Earth is dismantled.)


Check out Simon’s other reviews here.

Get Low arrives in Australian cinemas May 26, 2011.

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