Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Get Low: Tennessee Tale of Redemption

My prediction: Get Low will be remembered at Oscar time – at the very least for Robert Duval’s headline performance as an old coot planning to have a funeral party before he kicks the bucket, if not for supporting actors like Sissy Spacek and Bill Murray or the real heart of the movie, the cinematography and set design. In fact, this is probably the first serious contention in this year’s Oscar race.

For this is a movie in which a lot of extraordinary loving talent has been hung on a rather simple story. Though the ending revelation is a bit under whelming (if you can fault this movie for anything, it’s for a lot of cackling resulting in a tiny egg), getting there is pure enjoyment.

It’s the 1920’s and the film portrays the tension between rustic and modern eras beautifully: horseless carriages careen down the road, drivers wear leather gloves and bill caps and ladies wear hats, photographers have learned to gussy up pictures with fake backgrounds and poses, and yet the center of town is an unpaved road and a coffin serves as a better depository than a bank.

In the middle of this is Duval as Felix Bush, a bearded, cranky shut-in hiding away on 300 acres of raw beauty in the Tennessee hills. He chases away the boys who throw stones through his windows with a shotgun, builds his own furniture, makes a killer rabbit stew, and has a daguerreotype of an old flame which he cherishes like a religious chalice. To describe him as a throwback is an understatement. He’s more of a force of nature, a kind of human Hades, inhabiting his own private hell. One of those rock-throwing boys grows up to be Buddy, a new father and apprentice to Bill Murray’s funeral director. When Bush comes looking for a funeral before he’s dead, Buddy spies an opportunity to make some money for the flagging funeral parlor, and they become the sponsor of Bush’s improbable event.

But it turns out that this is no simple “funeral party.” What it really is is an elaborate confession – the story of what’s driven Bush to shut himself away for almost forty years, denying himself not only the comforts of modern life but of human companionship. You see he’s done something terrible – not the terrible things the town gossip about, but some actual heartbreak – and he’s been punishing himself for it ever since. Bush’s self-inflicted punishment is to slowly rid himself of everything around him, not only companionship, but also his legacy, and eventually even his land.

The beauty of the story isn’t so much in what this terrible act is…as I said, it turns out to be a bit lightweight, in the end. Instead, it’s in how Bush manipulates the people around him to carry out what’s essentially an elaborate attempt for a recluse to give his big confession at public speaking. Bush has to enlist Sissy Spacek’s Mattie as well as an old preacher (played by Bill Cobbs) to really be able to tell his story.

In the process, we slowly get to understand Bush’s character. He’s both smarter, and more savvy, than he comes off. “We’re all a mix of light and dark,” says Bush’s preacher. Even though that’s so, eventually we understand that there are still two types of people in the world: those who are ruled by the good side, and those who, when the going gets tough, will succumb to the dark. Bush, like Bill Murray’s funeral director, has always been the latter. But Buddy is the former, and as the two of them drive around the Midwest pursuing their machinations for Bush’s confession, they form a mutual understanding and bond.

So even though the story appears, on its surface, to be about a wounded man finally making his confession to the town, what it’s really about is the idea of trust and character. Everyone in the town believes from the start that Bush cannot be trusted. And possibly he can’t. But as Bush sizes up the character of those around him, he’s able to find the right people he can trust with his soul.

No detail in this film is wasted. Whether it be the shades of light and dark streaming through the Tennessee forest, or Bush’s parable about a dog’s dream (“we think a dog is dreaming about rabbits, but what can we know what a dog really dreams?”), each detail exposes the nature of the characters and draws us along the story.

The one complaint about the movie is that the essential act – Bush’s original sin, if you will – is never sufficiently dramatized. Though Duval delivers a masterful recitation of what’s brought his life to this point, the final revelation falls a bit flat, compared to all that’s come before. Bush is essentially in the act of disappearing, and in the end, he does. Perhaps he does so a bit too completely, because from what we get to see in this film, he really is a remarkable flawed and human character, one that we would be happy to continue to have learned more about.

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