Felix Bush (Robert Duvall) is the kind of man children fear and men tell stories about. He's the most notorious hermit in 1938's East Tennessee. He even has a sign nailed on his property warning "No damn trespassing. Beware of mule." In case anyone misses the point, Bush fires off a shot after hanging the sign, a gunpowder punctuation mark that declares he means business.
But there's a reason Bush began his self-imposed break from society. It's a story that has kept him sequestered behind his own front door and hidden behind a bushy beard. It's a story he is — quite literally — dying to reveal. When an old friend passes, a notion sticks in Bush's craw. If he stages his own funeral party, maybe the townsfolk will come and tell their stories about the enigmatic Bush, and he, in turn, can unload his. At the heart of Get Low is a truth we can all recognize; the one party we would most like to observe is the one we aren't invited to: our own funeral.
Duvall made his debut in 1962 as the reclusive neighbor Boo Radley in the film adaptation of the iconic Southern classic To Kill a Mockingbird. Ever since, he has played a range of ragged, eccentric Southerners, from Tender Mercies to Crazy Heart. In Get Low, Duvall graces audiences with another iconoclastic Southerner, a death-haunted man anxious to, in the Southern vernacular of the film's title, "get low" for that long dirt nap.
"Ohhhh, hermit money. That's good," exclaims savvy funeral director Frank Quinn (Bill Murray), eyeballing Bush's wad of cash. Quinn aims to make Bush's macabre dreams come true, aided and abetted by his kind-hearted assistant Buddy (Lucas Black). As Quinn, Murray is a Chicago city slicker trapped in a podunk town, taking regular pulls on his flask to contend with his dissatisfaction. Quinn has had the unfortunate luck to wind up in a town so mellow and stress-free that no one actually dies.
The film adopts a genial, pokey rhythm as it tells Bush's tale and, along with it, the story of the townsfolk both attracted and repulsed by the local oddball. Get Low is thick with thespian wattage, including Sissy Spacek as the widow Mattie Darrow. Looking positively girlish as Bush's former love, Darrow remembers his mysterious aura back in the day, saying, "He was like this big old cave that just went deeper and deeper."
But Get Low is undeniably Duvall's film and a showcase for his unique persona. Over time, he's developed the ticks, the weathered mien, and the psychological calluses of an aged bluesman. His screen presence is so loose and shambling he often appears more himself than the characters he plays. It's an identity that squares up nicely against Murray's similarly lived-in schtick as the wisecracking, seen-it-all Quinn, the dash of vinegar in Duvall's collard greens.
Get Low has some good impulses and some not-so-good impulses. The film's writers Chris Provenzano and C. Gaby Mitchell (working from the true story of a Tennessee man who threw himself a funeral party) pepper in the occasional anachronistic line of dialogue, and cinematographer-turned-director Aaron Schneider's work recalls — but never quite matches — other slow-burn Southern tales. But the film's biggest weakness is succumbing to the tired conventions of Southern period pictures, including a soundtrack where twangy guitar strumming accompanies any moment we're meant to read as "whimsical" or "poignant." Audiences hardly need that folksy undertone to convey what the story tells us clearly: This is an old-timey world with codes and conventions of its own.
If you take the Southern kitsch with a grain of salt, Get Low is otherwise a largely amiable, enjoyable film that should have kept the cutesy-pie stuff to a minimum and just allowed its talented actors to shine.