Get Low: movie review

( PG-13 ) ( Monitor Movie Guide )

In 'Get Low,' a poignant, superbly acted gem, Robert Duvall plays a recluse who throws a party during the Depression.

Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics
Scene: Bill Murray as plays Frank Quinn in the movie 'Get Low.'

With his long, stringy mountain-man beard and unblinking stare, Robert Duvall’s Felix Bush is not a man to be trifled with. Living hermitlike in the Tennessee backwoods in the depths of the Depression, he totes a shotgun and welcomes guests on his property with the sign: “No damn trespassing. Beware of mule.”

“Get Low,” the first feature of director Aaron Schneider, tells the story of how Felix, after 40 years as a recluse, arranges with Frank Quinn (Bill Murray), the local funeral parlor proprietor, to stage his own funeral while he’s still alive and able to hear what everybody will say about him.

It’s a common fantasy, of course. But why would Felix, who clearly despises the townsfolk, want to put himself through it?

The answer, when it comes, is a bit soppy, but it all works because Duvall’s Felix has a lived-in authenticity and a poignancy. This tough old bird can get away with being a sentimental old coot because we already know he doesn’t give up his secrets lightly.

Not only Duvall shines. Murray, in case anybody still doubted it, is one of the finest character actors in America. Frank’s exasperation with this ornery client is tempered by the big pay day he foresees. He’s a slickster who regards the funeral business as, well, a business. His soothing, oleaginous tones are the surest sign that he’s looking to score.

And yet Murray also humanizes Frank by giving him a core of decency that reveals itself in blurts of exasperation. “Is it just me,” he asks his callow assistant Buddy (Lucas Black), referring to Felix, “or is he extremely articulate when he wants to be?”

There are other terrific performances. Sissy Spacek, playing a woman Felix dated many years before, has a chilling scene with Duvall – she’s stricken, he’s penitent. It’s like watching two pros give a master class in acting.

Best of all might be Bill Cobbs as the minister whom Felix fruitlessly seeks out to preside over the mock funeral. Cobbs has a sly, roiling wit and a low-slung sense of timing that imbues each of his scenes with a folklorish glow. Cobbs has been acting in the movies, mostly under the radar, since the mid-1970s. He needs to be recognized as one of our best.

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