Felix Bush (Robert Duvall) is that old coot that every rural community used to have; the hermit who endured ritual harassment from the children of the region and sometimes gave them a scare or two that they never forgot. Those spooky encounters gave rise to myths and legends containing a kernel of truth, at best, that thanks to generational hot air popped into a tasty treat that defied description.
At first, it seems that not even Bush himself can recall the truth of the matter. Get Low, based in part on the true story of a legendary Tennessee loner from the 1930s, starts with a fever dream, a house afire and a figure, a man who dives from an upper-story window and staggers off as the house continues to burn. We are to assume that the mysterious survivor of the blaze was Bush, but we wonder what happened inside and were there others who failed to make it out. And Bush can’t or won’t tell us, at least not right away.
When next we see him, he’s doing what crazy country hermits do — scaring the piss out of a young boy who dares to poke around Bush’s house for a look at the old man. Soon after that, he’s beating the tar out of a man in town, someone who dared to address him, boldly warning the old man to leave the town and its good citizens alone, because everyone knows he’s not suitable for proper society.
Bush ventured in to ask the church pastor (Gerald McRaney) to handle his funeral. He came with a fat wad of money and a plan, one that catches the attention of Frank Quinn (Bill Murray) who runs the one and only funeral home in town, along with his earnest assistant Buddy (Lucas Black).
The plan, such as it is, involves a hosting a funeral before Bush’s death, one in which the whole town is invited to come and tell stories about Bush, every tall tale, lie, fable and whispered half-truth, to lay it all to rest, and maybe even discover the whole unvarnished truth about the man and that burning house.
To say that Duvall is perfectly cast as Bush would be an understatement. Borrowing from his own performance in The Apostle, where he played an itinerant preacher seeking a last tiny bit of salvation, he keeps his secrets buried deep, first behind a wild and wooly beard and later, after he’s shaved and cleaned up for his eventual burial, behind a cloak of awkward manners and his own uncertain memories of the long-gone situation. He’s able to string us along because he goads us into creating our own versions of what might have happened, the darker the better.
After he meets Mattie Darrow (Sissy Spacek), we learn that they had a brief relationship, which generates a low-key rivalry between Bush and the huckster Quinn, but further deepens and becomes more sordid when we realize that Bush might have also been involved with Darrow’s sister who died under mysterious circumstances.
It’s a pleasure to watch Duvall engaged with old pros like Spacek and Murray. Murray, in particular, infuses the expected comedic elements, but he’s never playing the lines strictly for laughs. He’s merely dispensing down-home wisdom from hard life lessons and his Quinn has a few secrets of his own. He and Duvall have different approaches, but these two recognize that they, and their characters, are kindred spirits.
For all the heavy hitters, though, the real surprise is Black’s Buddy. He is the figure audiences most identify with because through him we can see the effect Bush has on those young enough to have been spooked by the old man, but who, later on, could be awed by his authenticity and mannered charm.
But Buddy isn’t some easily fooled yahoo. He’s quick to spot the bullshit beneath the spit shine, and Black finds the right balance as he plays off his accomplished co-stars.
Aaron Schneider, a veteran cinematographer, takes the helm of his first feature film, and, like Black, never falters in the presence of acclaimed actors like Duvall, Spacek and Murray. He digs deep into the material and guides his cast down into the depths where they can get dirty in the messy affairs and secrets, knowing of course that everything will eventually come clean in the end. Grade: B (tt stern-enzi)