Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Get Low (2009, Aaron Schneider)

The history of movies is filled with hermits, but few have been as precisely drawn as Felix Bush, the protagonist of Get Low. Played by Robert Duvall, Felix is a cantankerous old coot- the word “old” would seem redundant but for the agreeable rhythm it brings to the phrase- who’s holed up in his cabin for the better part of four decades, with only a mule as company. One thing I appreciated about Get Low is that it doesn’t strive too hard to make Felix seem purer or more genuine than the more sophisticated townsfolk he meets throughout the film, or to turn him into some kind of backwoods philosopher. That’s not to say Felix doesn’t have wisdom of a sort, but it’s the kind of wisdom one gains through fending for oneself for a long period of time. Four decades alone hasn’t brought Felix any closer to figuring out the meaning of life, but they’ve given him plenty of time to perfect his recipe for rabbit stew. I also enjoyed how Felix’s lifestyle has given him a distinctive speaking style that’s simultaneously colorful and no-nonsense, as if he hasn’t missed having to engage in social niceties and wouldn’t mind not having to again. Observe the way he doesn’t linger any longer than he has to in a conversation- once he’s made his point, he simply picks up and leaves.

Get Low is a film of no great ambition but plenty of small pleasures, beginning with the performances, as one would expect from a movie starring Robert Duvall, Sissy Spacek, and Bill Murray. Duvall has played more than his share of ornery cusses, but he’s never played one quite like Felix, and it’s great to see him finding new wrinkles to a character that in other hands might have seemed like a cliché. Spacek brings an un-showy warmth to the role of a woman who has a somewhat fraught history with Felix, and Murray puts just the right spin on the slick undertaker who has no qualms about playing along with Felix’s idea to stage his own funeral while he’s still around to do it, if it means Murray gets his hands on some of Felix’s “hermit money.” Just as noteworthy, in a quieter way, is Lucas Black as Murray’s less gung-ho associate, who might come off as a textbook audience surrogate but for Black’s gift (in evidence ever since Sling Blade) for performances that are free of affectation and phoniness. And Bill Cobbs gets a nice supporting role as the one man who knows the truth about Felix’s past, the cause of much speculation among the locals.

Get Low isn’t particularly distinguished cinematically- with a cast like this, Schneider seems primarily concerned with not getting in the way. But I think the unassuming direction works in the film’s favor, since instead of ladling on the cutesy touches like so many would-be festival favorites, Get Low lets the charm flow naturally from the story and the performances. I just wish that Schneider and his screenwriters had the confidence to end the movie one scene before they did, on a perfectly lovely bit of homespun poetry involving a final guest arriving at Felix’s living funeral. But no matter- Get Low is a refreshing bit of low-key entertainment, one that’s especially welcome at the end of a summer filled with bloated spectacle. I don’t think I can put it better than my friend Craig Kennedy, who said, “it might not rock your world, but it’ll make it a nicer place to be for a couple of hours.”

Rating: 7 out of 10.

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