There’s a moment early on in Aaron Schneider’s Get Low in which our hero, Felix Bush (Robert Duvall), promotes his living funeral through live radio broadcast to local townsfolk and all those residing in the adjoining counties. Asked by the operator how he’s doing, Bush responds in his uniquely short and gruff manner, “I am”; the younger man appears flummoxed for a fleeting second before barreling forward through the grand announcement of Bush’s return to civilization after forty years of self-imposed exile. Everything happens so quickly that Bush’s reply can easily get lost, but it feels key to understanding his character and realizing that his real motives behind attending his own funeral party aren’t what he wants everyone to believe at first.
Get Low reads as a broad mix of ideas and focuses, which is not to say that it’s chaotic or imprecise. Rather, there’s a wide variety of details and themes running throughout that often play second fiddle to the film’s primary interests– the nature of guilt and the catharsis of confession– but add to the story rather than distract from what matters. The art of myth-making, for example, feels particularly close to Bush as a character and understandably so given his background. Bush, it seems, has returned to civilization after withdrawing himself for four decades and change in order to buy himself a funeral and listen to the stories people have to tell about him. If that alone isn’t enough to get even the most restrained and well-mannered person talking, then certainly the whispers and murmurs made about him over the course of his personal isolation alone provide enough material to fill the air at several living funerals. But this isn’t the core of Get Low, just the fringe, and we learn as much soon enough.
Get Low is the first feature by director Aaron Schneider, whose career spans the course of the past two decades and prominently features a great deal of cinematography work and television work. His experience shows, largely in positive ways; the film looks divine, for starters. Schneider does a great honor to the woods and countrysides of Georgia, capturing them in beautiful and rustic detail, such that there’s never a question as to the reality of the world he’s building. He also appears to have a flare for composition and arrangement; even when darkness overtakes the frame there’s something interesting and eye-catching that exists in many of the film’s shots. At the same time, Schneider is clearly unaccustomed to directing something of Get Low‘s magnitude (and it’s only an hour and forty minutes) and tends to jump away from beats that demand to be drawn out and savored. It’s a bad habit– not one capable of dragging the film down, but one that becomes distracting at times and at worst breaks the immediacy of a scene.
This is quibbling of the highest degree perhaps, since Get Low is a fine piece of filmmaking and never feels in jeopardy of faltering or stumbling. At worst, it feels trifling, as though it could be taken at face value and then never given much consideration again. But Get Low proves itself an admirable and moving story about the quest for forgiveness and the paths that personal guilt leads people down, with a minor side examination of truth in local legends and folk stories.
It’s clear early on that Felix doesn’t truly care about what people have to say about him, save for a few specific ones, and that his reasons for requesting a living funeral stem out of necessity instead of curiosity. The stories that the members of the township have to tell about him don’t matter; going back to his moment with the radio operator, he simply is, regardless of what wild theories and campfire stories have been woven about his character. What matters to Felix is the opportunity to attain absolution and redemption for the transgression that spurred him to pursue a life of solitary contemplation in the first place. That a guilty conscience drove him to live alone in the woods isn’t played as a huge and shocking reveal, and that feels appropriate. This is a movie about small details playing off of one another, rather than grand gestures or narrative-bending twists; that Felix’s sin itself is so minute in context with the film creates a sort of harmony between both structure and character.
This plays into the way that Get Low deconstructs the mythical figure that Bush cuts when we initially meet him out in the woods, firing his shotgun into the air to scare off children hurling rocks through his windows as a test of bravery. Bush is an unknown quantity to viewers as well as the populace of the town; it’s easy to believe that there’s some large and expansive secret driving his desire to see through his own funeral. But piece by piece, the film strips away a layer of the Bush legend until just the man remains. Once again– Bush just is. His story is powerful and moving, but it’s not steeped in the same stuff as the folk tales which we expect it to resemble.
More than anything, though, Get Low is a movie about performance; driving the plot and themes forward are two of our finest actors at two different stages in their common pursuit. Duvall, of course, yields a sterling performance on top of a sterling career filled with incredible roles, and that his moving and heart-wrenching speech towards the film’s climax can be counted amongst his many memorable moments in cinema speaks volumes to his mastery of his craft. Duvall plays with his cards close to his chest for much of the film, hinting at what’s bubbling beneath the surface of his character before finally opening Felix up and baring his soul. If nothing else, Get Low deserves to be seen just for his climactic confession. It may well be one of the best acted moments you see in a movie this year.
Bill Murray supplies the other performance, that of Frank Quinn, a funeral home director who agrees to help Felix assemble his funeral party. Murray’s the kind of actor from whom a raised eyebrow conveys volumes, and Frank is exactly the kind of character to benefit from such nuances and movements. Unsurprisingly, Murray nails every comedic beat given to his character, but he imbues Frank with enormous heart and soul and makes him much more than an outlet of wry humor.
An examination of the spiritual and emotional need to clear one’s conscience and a subtle piece on how myths are made and eventually undone, Get Low is the kind of movie with a lot to say but without any real motivation to speak loudly, a trait that is to the film’s credit. Schneider’s film says its piece simply and quietly, and leaves you to do with it what you will. It’s a great first effort for the fledgling director and an excellent showcase for both Murray, a man just coming into his prime as an actor, and Duvall, one of the all-time greats who finds himself heading towards the end of his career.