Robert Duvall looks great as a grizzled old coot, while Bill Murray makes a mighty fine funeral director. Surround them with sharp old-timey details of the Depression-era boondocks and the roles fit them even better.
That's the lowdown on "Get Low," a very old-fashioned comic drama whose charm comes more from the characters, performances and rich period feel than from the story itself, which is inspired by real events but strains at the reins a bit in its fictionalized elements.
Duvall is perfectly cast as a rural hermit who abruptly ends 40 years of seclusion to arrange a "living funeral" so he can hear what people might have to say about him while he's still around.
With terrific support from Murray, Sissy Spacek, Lucas Black and Bill Cobbs, "Get Low" marks a rosy feature-film debut by director Aaron Schneider, a veteran cinematographer whose 2003 tale, "Two Soldiers," won an Academy Award as best live-action short film.
From "Two Soldiers," a 1940s-era William Faulkner adaptation, to "Get Low" was a natural progression, both films set in the rural South and intricately recreating a backwoods folksiness with deep warmth and humor.
Duvall's Felix Bush is the local boogeyman around his late-1930s town, where boys sneak up and toss rocks through the windows of his isolated home and adults spread tall tales of supposed violence in the old man's past.
After Felix learns of an old friend's death, four decades of ruminating alone over his dark secrets boil over. Felix heads to town looking to throw a funeral party where people can come and say whatever they like about him, his way to "get low" — or down to business — as he prepares himself for the true end of his life.
Down-on-his-luck undertaker Frank Quinn (Murray), amusingly lamenting how "people are dying in bunches everywhere but here," jumps at the chance to stage Felix's living funeral and assigns his goodhearted apprentice (Black) to help make arrangements with the ornery old gent.
Based on a real man
Duvall's character is based on a Tennessee loner who became a local celebrity for holding a living funeral for himself in 1938. That's a fun but straightforward piece of folklore, so to add Hollywood drama, screenwriters Chris Provenzano and C. Gaby Mitchell build a grim mystery into Felix's past that touches on old flame Mattie Darrow (Spacek).
It makes for a marvelous act of confession and redemption for Felix, with Duvall delivering a heartbreaking soliloquy loaded with moments that are the stuff of best-actor clips come Oscar night, where the actor could well be heading for this performance.
Yet it also feels vaguely like artifice, a literary feint to put a convenient beginning, middle and end on the story: First, Felix the incorrigible crackpot, then, Felix the mysterious but lovable curmudgeon, finally, Felix the penitent.
It's not a fatal flaw, just a nagging one. The drama simply wraps up a little too neatly given the ragged edges of Felix and the people he touches, including Cobbs as a preacher privy to the old man's secrets.
For a filmmaker who has worked mostly in contemporary settings in television, film, music videos and commercials, Schneider shows eyes and ears marvelously attuned to the past. The images glow with wistful nostalgia, while the rhythms of the dialogue and Jan A.P. Kaczmarek's rootsy musical score immerse viewers in earlier times.
Murray occasionally lets some modern smarm slip through undertaker Frank's demeanor as a glib 1930s huckster. You can let that slide, though, because Murray is so much fun to watch.
Alongside Oscar winners Duvall and Spacek, Murray shows again that he can get low with the best of them.