It’s difficult to find the words to express in reaction to Get Low, mainly because the film doesn’t say much in and of itself. This is not to say that the film is either terrible or magnificent; when one watches Get Low it’s hard to get the sense that it is good or bad as much as it is simply a non-event. The film’s ambitions are modest, its approach straightforward, its style restrained, and it contains a story constructed with what seems like thoroughly intended thinness.
Director Aaron Schneider’s first feature (the filmmaker won an Academy Award in 2003 for his short Two Soldiers), Get Low is a folk-tale-based story of a reclusive old curmudgeon in 1930s Tennessee who throws his own funeral while he’s still alive. What at first comes across as a bold act of eccentricity by a man who himself is a living folk tale in his small hometown becomes a story about redemption, forgiveness, and regret in the twilight of one’s life. Robert Duvall, plays the man in question, Felix Bush, while Bill Murray and Lucas Black run the funeral home that Felix is staging his party through. Sissy Spacek rounds out the supporting cast as Mattie, Felix’s old flame and lost object of affection, while Bill Cobbs makes an appearance as the preacher who reluctantly officiates Felix’s living wake.
While Duvall showed a strong presence last year with his supporting turns in The Road and Crazy Heart, it’s hard to think of the last time he had a solid leading role, and Get Low, if nothing else, reminds you why Duvall can be such a commanding presence when he’s front-and-center in the film. Duvall’s role as Felix is his most commanding, memorable lead since The Apostle, but that’s more of an indication of the veteran actor’s recent career choices than an endorsement of praise for his latest film. With a giant beard and his deep, gruff voice, Duvall’s presence is as heavy here as his impressive career would justify.
Duvall adds a great deal to Felix that comes across as hardly present on the page, embedding his character’s reserved moments of silence with the impression of dense introspection. But Duvall unfortunately has to do the homework of filling out the character where the filmmakers choose not to, as Felix is bestowed characteristics by those who share the screen with him that simply aren’t evident to the audience. Characters say that Felix is a silent introvert, but we see him talk quite often; characters say that Felix is a recluse who resorted to decades of solitude as a result of being unable to deal with his personal demons, yet nothing about him seems antisocial; other characters say that there are numerous ‘crazy stories’ about Felix, yet none of these stories are explicitly recounted and Felix never displays a temperament that would inspire such stories, true or false. There is an odd disconnect in Get Low between the character the filmmakers want to create and the impressions ultimately derived from what is projected onscreen, showing a lack of control behind the camera as such heavy acting talent exists right in front of the camera. Duvall simply makes the most of what sparingly little he’s been given to work with.
Regarding the rest of the cast, Bill Murray is a welcome presence but comes across as oddly miscast, his sense of humor and general demeanor being incongruous with the setting and tone of the rest of the film. Lucas Black is just fine as Murray’s assistant, and Spacek, like Duvall, bestows gravitas to a role in which too much is left off the page, which brings me to Get Low’s greatest flaw. Get Low is a character piece in which its central character makes an odd decision, and the rest of the film is the methodical unraveling of the reasons behind that decision, yet these revelations never contain the depth, or even the detail, necessary to achieve the intense emotional response that it clearly aims to elicit from the viewer. The film is hardly attempting to be a tear jerker, but it does aim for a modest degree of emotional resonance that it simply doesn’t achieve. There are appealing elements here, and besides the major plus of a great cast the film is technically proficient for the most part (mainly in terms of production design, as other areas – notably editing and framing – flirt with the amateur), but Get Low simply doesn’t take the effort to fill everything out, to provide the sense of depth or backstory necessary for all the emotions on display to be convincingly earned for the audience. At times the modesty of the film is a welcome relief, but by the end it’s simply too underwhelming and weak to justify its efforts.