Wednesday, June 23, 2010

EIFF Premiere: "Get Low" (2010)

There is a 1930s American folk tale about a reclusive old man named Felix Bush (Robert Duvall) who is feared by most people in town. There are legends surrounding him about the terrible deeds he has done and the men he has killed with his own bare hands. Felix arrives into town to begin planning for his funeral service, an event that all the townspeople are invited to attend. The catch is that it's a funeral party, and Felix will be there in attendance not dead but alive.

Aaron Schneider's "Get Low" is inspired by this tale, and the film does an excellent job of conveying the mood and feel of the old South. Set in rural 1930s Tennessee, the cinematography from David Boyd is frequently beautiful to look at. This is Schneider's feature-length directorial debut as he won an Oscar for his short film, "Two Soldiers," and he proves to have a keen sense of balance and timing. He is confident at telling this seemingly slight story that turns out to be emotionally involving and satisfying. With sly humor and quieter more intimate moments in equal value, Schneider and his writers strike a pleasantly restrained chord in this old legend and set the showcase for some compelling characters.

Upon hearing that Felix had come into town looking for a funeral, Buddy (Lucas Black), a young employee at Quinn's Funeral Home, heads out to Felix's lone cabin in the woods with his boss, Frank Quinn (Bill Murray). They quickly strike up a deal even with the odd request of throwing a party as Frank's eyes light up at the sound of a big payout because his funeral home business is failing. "What do you do when people won't die?" he asks. Frank and Buddy soon find out the type of man, and consequently man of legend, they're dealing with. Felix gets brought onto a radio show, and there he offers folks raffle tickets with his valuable property as the prize working as incentive to get people to show up. He knows people have stories to tell about him, and he wants to hear them all.

A soft-spoken widowed woman, Mattie (Sissy Spacek), comes back into town and is curious to hear that Felix is showing himself after so long. "There's nobody like him," she says. The scenes between Mattie and Felix are the movie's most heartfelt and sentimental as they mull over the ideas of loss, death and forgiveness. "The list of people going gets longer and longer," Mattie says. "I'm waiting for my name to be called." Turns out that Felix doesn't so much want to hear other stories at his funeral than he does want to tell his own. He's been carrying a burden of guilt for the past 40 years. Even an old friend of Felix's, Rev. Charlie Jackson (Bill Cobbs), is reluctant to speak for him at the funeral.

And I've yet to even mention Robert Duvall's astonishing, finely nuanced and downright Oscar-caliber performance as Felix Bush. He is a superb actor, and his work here is both humorous and sorrowful. Playing a cranky hermit could easily have led to a caricature, but Duvall sidesteps that and molds a fully-fledged man who may have a few screws loose but is also affectionate. Duvall is backed with an equally fine supporting cast. Spacek is sweet and lovely, Lucas Black is effective, Bill Cobbs is wise and solemn, and, most of all, Bill Murray is hilarious with all of his gestures, glances and snappy jokes.

Once the build-up of anticipation for Felix's funeral party is released, "Get Low" hits its stride. Duvall's delivery of Felix's confession will have you wiping your eyes dry, the signal of a masterful performance and ranking among the most powerful and memorable moments I've seen on-screen so far this year.

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