Get Low (2009, DVD review)

“Forgiveness is free…but you have to ASK for it.”

Robert Duvall, Lucas Black, and Bill Murray, “Get Low”

Dir. Aaron Schneider, with Robert Duvall, Bill Murray, Sissy Spacek, and Lucas Black

When it was in theaters I raved about Get Low, the first feature-length effort from director Aaron Schneider, to all my friends, but as far as I know the only ones who actually saw it were those I physically dragged to the theater – that, or to my living room this week, when I got my hands on the DVD. The film is an overlooked low-budget gem, based on a true-life anecdote about Felix (Bush) Breazeale, an eccentric, depression-era Tennessee recluse who threw his own funeral party while still alive to enjoy it.

It’s an all-around great movie, firing smoothly on all cylinders. To begin with, writers Chris Provenzano, C. Gaby Mitchell, and Scott Seeke did not simply settle for the funeral party gimmick (what will they actually say about me?). The colorful notion does launch the film, and its cast of equally colorful characters, effectively. The writers instead mined the character, imagining why someone might do such a thing. It becomes clear, progressively, that Felix Bush (Robert Duvall) has a real human past, including romances, and a dreadful secret that’s kept him out there isolated in the woods for 40 years, and the film develops into a wonderful, fully fleshed-out story of sin and redemption.

Robert Duvall and Sissy Spacek, “Get Low”

The acting in Get Low deserved, and got, high praise. Duvall, one of the great character actors working today and clearly enjoying himself, is terrific as the eccentric, tortured soul who seems much crazier than he actually is, and who to some degree may be driving events more than anyone initially suspects. His monologue at the final party is mesmerizing, equal parts brimstone and self-damnation.

And Bill Murray is pitch-perfect as Frank Quinn, the slightly oily undertaker who takes on the job of organizing Bush’s funeral party. Murray delivers some of the funniest lines I heard in theaters all that year, I think, in his trademark low-key deadpan that makes them even funnier. It’s actually much more of a serious role than a comic one, though, with a complex story and a situation that demands real heart, and Murray brings it. Murray’s evolving into a solid character actor, and Frank Quinn marks a progression of serious work, from Lost in Translation (2003) and Broken Flowers (2005 – OK, half comedy, half serious) to his remarkable performance as Franklin D. Roosevelt in the currently running Hyde Park on Hudson.

Bill Murray, “Get Low”

The setting, shot on location in Georgia, is believably small-town and deep woods, both, with beautiful cinematography by David Boyd. Director Aaron Schneider’s previous credits are as cinematographer as well, which no doubt matters, and almost every frame of the film is gorgeous. The sweet sound track features contemporary (depression-era) music and some great bluegrass, one by Alison Kauss (“Lay My Burden Down”), and a warm-up performance in the big party scene by the Nashville band, The Steeldrivers. It’s hard for me to think of anything the filmmakers could have done better, or anyone that wouldn’t find it thoroughly (cliché alert) heart-warming. And seriously: don’t we all need to have our hearts warmed?

In 2010, when Get Low was released, the Oscar competition was quite strong. Best Picture nominees included The Hurt Locker, Avatar, District 9 (I still think one of the best and most interesting films of the decade), and Inglorious Basterds, and the Best Actor and Supporting Actor fields were just as strong. This is in contrast to 2009 – bad timing – when the pointless and silly The Curious Case of Benjamin Button was able to collect a number of nominations. The universe is only hypothetically a fair place, and in the Oscars, as in life, timing is everything. That, along with having a serious marketing budget.