The title Get Low is an aphorism Felix Bush (Robert Duvall) uses to mean “get down to business.” Felix is a cranky old coot who lives in seclusion in the Tennessee woods, far removed from town, where everyone thinks he is a crazy, dangerous hermit who once killed some men in a fistfight.
Felix, who sports a woolly Rip Van Winkle beard and has a “No Damn Trespassing!” sign in front of his house, does little to refute his reputation. He’s content to live in solitude with a mule as his best friend. But after he receives news that an old friend has died, Felix begins to contemplate his mortality and wonders who, if anyone, will mourn him when he’s gone.
So instead of waiting for death to sneak up on him, Felix contacts Frank Quinn (Bill Murray), who runs the town’s funeral parlor with his assistant Buddy (Lucas Black). Business has been distressingly slow for Frank — people in town simply aren’t dying in large enough numbers — and when he hears the phrase “old man,” he responds “Is there a body?”
Frank is delighted when Felix hires him to arrange his memorial service, even if there’s an unusual catch: Felix isn’t dead. Instead, he wants everyone who has ever heard a weird story about him to show up, and, to guarantee a large crowd, he raffles off his 300-acre patch of land as a lure.
Directed by former cinematographer Aaron Schneider, Get Low is loosely based on the true story of a hermit who threw himself a funeral party in 1938 that drew thousands of people. But although the movie is a slow buildup to the event, Felix’s “funeral” turns out to be rather anti-climactic.
Despite the infusion of quiet, subtle humor Murray injects into his scenes, Get Low is primarily a drama — a rather tragic one — designed primarily as a showcase for Duvall. The actor is terrific in the role of an isolated, temperamental man who is obviously much more aware and intelligent than he initially seems. Duvall draws you in the same way he makes the other characters in the film curious about Felix: You want to know why he’s so peculiar or the nature of his relationship with the widowed Mattie (Sissy Spacek) or the identity of the woman whose photo he keeps pinned to the wall by his bed.
Duvall’s performance, likely to be remembered when Oscar nominations are announced next year, carries you through Get Low, which is tender and sentimental, a little schmaltzy, and ultimately too slight. The character isn’t exactly a change of pace for the actor, who has been playing prickly patriarch figures for a while. But even if Felix isn’t much of a challenge, Duvall still leaves an indelible impression, especially after the climactic scene, which he nails with the ease and grace of an all-star. He’s great. The rest of Get Low, which is shot in a lovely palette of browns and blacks, is sweet and gentle and occasionally makes you crave a catnap.
Cast: Robert Duvall, Bill Murray, Lucas Black, Sissy Spacek, Gerald McRaney, Bill Cobbs.
Director: Aaron Schneider.
Screenwriters: Chris Provenzano, C. Gaby Mitchell.
Producers: Dean Zanuck, David Gundlach.
A Sony Pictures Classics release. Running time: 102 minutes. Vulgar language, adult themes.