Get Low centers on death, regret and personal reparations, in a story set against the backdrop of the Depression-era South. Yet out of that miserable pall first-time feature filmmaker Aaron Schneider (a veteran cinematographer) puts forth a picture rife with subtle humor, with a certain joie de vivre borne out of the notion that it’s never too late for even the most lost of souls to reenter the land of the living.
Robert Duvall does not just play Felix Bush, a curmudgeonly hermit who’s a small-town legend. The actor inhabits him, down to the cadences of his slow deliberate voice and the twinkle in his eye that suggests there’s more to the man than his haggardly beard lets on. The old man arrives, early on, at the funeral home run by Frank Quinn (Bill Murray) and makes a strange pronouncement. He wants to throw a funeral party, to invite townsfolk with stories about him to come to his remote property and tell them publicly, and he wants to be there alive.
Rather than engaging in plot-driven mechanics, Schneider roots the movie in a classical down-home atmosphere. With its naturally lit interiors and in the ways the rich maroons of the period design eloquently enmesh with the washed out exteriors, Get Low looks and feels like a relic from an era of filmmaking that prized patient character-driven ruminations above empty spectacle. Schneider presents a full vision of Felix’s lonely life on his farm, which parallels the close-knitted town that he long ago abandoned.
The screenplay, by Chris Provezano and C. Gabby Mitchell, unfolds in the rhythms of daily life, evoking the blends of past and present, and sadness and joy, that comprise the day-to-day human experience. There’s the sense of a story being told in the fullest sense, in which the central events and the milieu’s peripheral elements combine to form a narrative derived from a communal past.
Get Low continues the tradition of the best folkloric storytelling, zeroing in on Felix’s demons while it mines the comic aspects of his reentry into society and forming/renewing of personal relationships. All are connected to the town’s larger story. The tonal switches feel natural, as the comedy derives from a serious place and the various layers of Felix’s complex personality are unpacked with such ease by the legend embodying him.
There was a real hermit named Felix “Bush” Breazeale, who had a real funeral party in Tennessee during the 1930s. Not much is known about him, so Schneider’s movie could be seen as a best guess, a plausible stab at determining what sort of man might sign up for such a thing and why he’d be so determined to go through with it. While most movies shy away from death, from the emotions spurred by its inevitable advance, this one stares it in the face, unafraid. Get Low celebrates the peaceful finality of a soul at rest and the rewards one might find in preparing for the end, when it arrives.