Friday, August 13, 2010


Robert Duvall made his movie debut in the small, wordless role of Boo Radley, a small-town recluse who has the status of boogeyman for children in his neighborhood, in 1962’s To Kill a Mockingbird. In the end, we get a closer look at Boo, who emerges as a hero of the story.

48 years later, Duvall plays another scary recluse, in Get Low, which opens this weekend here in the Valley. This time he plays Felix Bush, a long-bearded, taciturn hermit who lives in a cabin in the woods near a small Tennessee town during the Depression. When Felix realizes that his body is about to give out, he heads to town & arranges with sly mortician Frank Quinn (Bill Murray) for a funeral to be held before he dies. He plans it as a party, open to anyone who has a story about him to share. There’s to be a pretty good raffle prize, too: A drawing for the timber-rich land on which Felix lives.

Felix has spent years avoiding society; but with a haircut & beard trim & some fresh clothes, he emerges as a handsome old fellow, with a dry, laconic humor. As the movie progresses, Felix forms a mostly unspoken bond with Frank’s goodhearted assistant Buddy (Lucas Black), & we learn that he withdrew into isolation many years earlier as a self-punishment because of a guilty secret. This is somehow connected to a widow (Sissy Spacek) who has recently moved back to town after many years. The true story about him, he implies, is the one that only he knows, & he can’t bear to tell it. It’s as if Boo Radley had been combined with Mac Sledge, the guilt-haunted country singer that Duvall brought so painfully to life in 1983’s Tender Mercies.

Get Low is the directorial debut of the veteran cinematographer Aaron Schneider, working from a script by several hands. The story was inspired by the real-life Tennessee hermit Felix “Uncle Bush” Breazeale, who, very much alive, hosted his own funeral in 1938. It’s a gorgeous movie, with its sepia-toned, old-photograph look, & there isn’t a bad performance in it.

Duvall, unsurprisingly, dominates the proceedings. Muttering & chuckling to himself as he labors to breathe, he lets you see Felix’s intelligence & curiosity & sense of whimsy, & thus what his renunciation of human society has cost him. But Black, Spacek & Murray, along with Bill Cobbs, Gerald McRaney & Lori Beth Edgeman all contribute fine work as well.

I enjoyed Get Low thoroughly, but I’ve been trying to decide since I saw it if it really adds up to all that much. When we finally get to hear Felix’s secret, it’s certainly tragic and traumatic, but it isn’t quite surprising. It was something along the lines of what we would probably guess, & it makes Felix’s self-exile seem a bit extreme. If the backstory was as compelling as Duvall’s quietly forceful performance, Get Low might be a classic. Even as it is, it’s a pleasure.

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