Film » Screens

Dead Man Walking

Robert Duvall throws a funeral for himself in Get Low



Although it wasn't written by the late Horton Foote, first-time director Aaron Schneider's Get Low has many of the stylistic earmarks — as well as the same deliberate pace — of early '80s Foote adaptations The Trip to Bountiful, 1918, On Valentine's Day, and Tender Mercies, which won Foote his second screenwriting Oscar. (The first was for his sensitive adaptation of Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird in 1963.)  

The major difference between Get Low and a typical work written by Foote is the setting. Instead of the Pulitzer-winning dramatist's beloved rural Texas, Low takes place in the Tennessee backwoods. Also conspicuously absent from Schneider's film is the Spartan eloquence of Foote's poetic dialogue (Chris Provenzano and C. Gaby Mitchell's script is perfectly adequate, however). What Schneider's film does have — and what makes it worth seeking out for fans of fine acting — is frequent Foote collaborator Robert Duvall.

Duvall made his screen debut as Boo Radley in To Kill a Mockingbird, and Felix Bush, the taciturn hermit Duvall plays here, could be an older, slightly worldlier version of Mockingbird author Lee's most iconic creation. When Felix rides his mule-driven wagon into town after 40 years of seclusion, it's only to discuss his funeral. Felix has the crazy notion that he'd like to hear what folks have to say about him once he's passed. And since the only way he can do that is to have a memorial service while still very much alive, Reverend Horton (Gerald McRaney) naturally balks at this unorthodox request. More amenable to Felix's plans are struggling funeral parlor operator Frank Quinn (Bill Murray in another of his wryly minimalist performances), who even has the brilliant idea of selling lottery tickets to the event. The winner gets the deed to Felix's 300-acre property — once he's actually deceased, of course. 

Leading up to Felix's impending funeral party, he's visited by two people from his past: ex-girlfriend Mattie (Sissy Spacek) and the Reverend Jackson (Bill Cobbs). Since both remain tightlipped about their relationship with Felix, the stage is set for a major reveal during the climactic service. Like a typical Horton Foote play or movie, second chances and spiritual redemption lie at the heart of this wistful, increasingly melancholy drama. Yes, there will be tears.

Duvall has played lots of crusty, sly-as-a-fox old coots like Felix before (remember Gus McCrae from Lonesome Dove?), but his genius for understatement ensures that the character never devolves into a compendium of southern-gothic clichés. The best moments in the film are the one-on-one exchanges between Felix and Frank. Duvall and Murray are clearly having a ball playing off each other, and their mutual regard is as endearing as it is infectious. 

If Get Low ultimately lacks the artistic clarity and personal vision of Tender Mercies or The Trip to Bountiful, there's more than enough warmth, wit, and beautifully judged performances to make it a refreshing, grown-up alternative to the mindless sensation of most hot-weather movies. 

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