By Steven Zeitchik
November 19, 2009
“Get Low” coasts along on Southern folkloric whimsy and sly humor for a good while but can’t escape the fact that, as backwoods legends go, this one lacks a real payoff.
TORONTO — “Get Low” coasts along on Southern folkloric whimsy and sly humor for a good while but can’t escape the fact that, as backwoods legends go, this one lacks a real payoff. An unlikely but spirited cast has assembled for the feature debut of Aaron Schneider, who won an Oscar for his short “Two Soldiers,” including Robert Duvall, Bill Murray, Sissy Spacek and Lucas Black. So the results are entertaining — up to a point.
Theatrical prospects appear limited, though festival slots and perhaps a cable deal beckon. An appreciative critical response could earn the film a few showcase dates in major city venues or cinematheques.
The film plants one squarely in the Depression-era rural South, where gossip and the occasional fistfight among hotheads in town are the main forms of entertainment. For a couple of generations, locals have swapped and embellished tales about a backwoods recluse named Felix Bush (Duvall).
Probably nobody could live up to those myths, but one thing that links them all is that Felix and the devil are spoken of in the same breath. Then, suddenly, Felix invites everyone to his funeral — while he is still alive. He’d like to hear what folks have to say about him before he really passes.
Up to this point, the screenplay by Chris Provenzano (“Mad Men”) and C. Gaby Mitchell (“Blood Diamond”) is based on a real Tennessee legend. Seems Old Man Bush even sold lottery tickets offering his valuable forest land as the prize. With that incentive, folks really did turn out.
But the Hollywood version goes searching for a bigger payoff than a raffle. Felix must have a confession to make. He wants to explain why he has imprisoned himself for 40 years with only mules and dogs for companions. Yes, he harbors a guilty secret.
Making these arrangements is all quite amusing for a while. Murray plays a hard-up funeral-home director who, by staging this “living funeral,” will see a big payday, and Black is his young married apprentice. The 1930s-era publicity campaign, from a trip to a photographer for flyers to a nearby radio station, brings plenty of welcome comedy to the old legend.
The script then lets a couple of characters turn up who know a thing or two about the old man’s secret. Spacek plays a widow, newly returned to her hometown, who remembers the Felix of old and treats him with warmth and affection.
Bill Cobbs is a preacher in distant Illinois whom Felix asks to conduct his service. The preacher flatly refuses: Felix never has asked God — and those he harmed — for forgiveness.
The trouble is, by the time the big “reveal” arrives, an audience member can pretty much guess at the bare-bone outline of his great sin. His behavior four decades earlier might possess shock value for the ’30s but lacks similar punch today. The film ends in something of a whimper.
So the pleasures of “Get Low” lie more in the acting and the depiction of a different era. Duvall is his cantankerous best as the old man who turns out to be more scared than scary. Murray gets just enough away from the usual Bill Murray persona to turn in a refreshing comic performance. Unfortunately, the movie moves his character toward the sidelines as it progresses.
Spacek and Black are solid yet need more to do. The fact about Felix’s tale of regret is all the principals are dead, so no real confrontation can take place.
A tip of the hat to the location scouts for piecing together a real look at the old South. Cinematographer David Boyd and designer Geoffrey Kirkland make it all so vivid without it seeming like a re-creation. Finally, Jan A.P. Kaczmarek’s bluegrassy score fits in just right, catching period tones with modern inflections.
Venue: Toronto International Film Festival
Production: K5 presents a Zanuck Independent/David Gundlach Prods./Lara Enterprises/TVN production
Cast: Robert Duvall, Bill Murray, Sissy Spacek, Lucas Black, Gerald McRaney, Bill Cobbs.
Director-editor: Aaron Schneider
Screenwriters: Chris Provenzano, C. Gaby Mitchell
Story by: Chris Provenzano, Scott Seeke
Producer: Dean Zanuck, David Gundlach
Executive producer: David B. Ginsberg, Harrison Zanuck
Director of photography: David Boyd
Production designer: Geoffrey Kirkland
Music: Jan A.P. Kaczmarek
Costume designer: Julie Weiss
Sales agent: K5 International, CAA
Rated PG, 102 minutes