Sunday, March 27, 2011

A Funeral I Would Attend -- Reflections on "Get Low" (2010)

I know a lot of people out there are scared to die. Of course we are since we have no tangible assurance as to what waits for us -- if anything -- on the other side of this life. I think a part of us worries most, though, about what others will say about us once we've departed. I know I do. Will people show up at my funeral? Will they remember me fondly, swapping fun stories, or will they choose to remember instead all the wretched things I did in my life?

Get Low, the first feature film from director Aaron Schneider, starts off being about this, but becomes something deeper and more emotionally complex as it goes. By the end, I thought the film was more about how afraid we are to continue living in the face of our worst sins than it is about any fear of death or other's judgment of our lives. This complexity helps Get Low become a substantial, emotionally rewarding film.

Basics: After learning of the death of a long-time friend, a mysterious and ornery hermit named Felix Bush (Robert Duvall) gets the idea to take the money he has saved and buy a funeral party to be held before his passing. Everyone is shocked by the audacity of the request, but local funeral director, Frank Quinn (Bill Murray) sees an opportunity to save his dying business from closing. With the help of Frank's assistant, Buddy (Lucas Black), they work to throw Felix a huge celebration. Along the way, Felix re-encounters some old faces from his life before he became a hermit. Mattie Darrow (Sissy Spacek) and Rev. Charlie Jackson (Bill Cobbs) remind Felix of the sins of his past that caused him to hide from the world, sins so great that Felix is forced to re-evaluate his decision to stage a funeral for himself.

Duvall is a fine wine: Look at Robert Duvall's IMDb resume sometime and you'll see a list of some of the greatest movies ever made: To Kill a Mockingbird, True Grit, The Godfather, The Conversation, Network, Apocalypse Now, Tender Mercies, The Apostle. His performance as Felix Bush is one of his best. He reveals Felix to be obstinate, crusty, and scary. You don't need to hear all the folk tales about how scary Felix was because you can believe them when you take one look at Duvall's haggard face. At the same time, Duvall subtly plays Felix's sensitivity and personal horror well, especially in his scenes with Sissy Spacek. Without Duvall, this film falls apart as predictable drivel, and probably doesn't get made.

Bill Murray should be in every indie movie:  Murray is a mercurial actor at best -- he used to be the comedic genius that brought us Ghostbusters, Stripes, and Groundhog Day and now only seems to star in indie pictures like Rushmore, Lost in Translation, and Get Low. Nonetheless, his streak of indie successes is such that he makes the movie just by showing his goofy face. In Get Low, he plays Frank Quinn as a former car salesman who is not opposed to being shady to get a deal done, yet has enough human decency to avoid it at all costs. Only Murray could play a character who seems so smarmy on the surface, yet can maintain their dignity and goodness.

Before the religious types grab hold of this movie, think about: Get Low is a story about forgiveness, acceptance for things that can't be changed, and grace. These are viable religious themes, likely to attract believers looking for a film they can share as evidence of God's divine mercy. On one end, I can see this as true, but Get Low does not affect many religious values outside of the basics. It is ultimately a movie about personal forgiveness. Can a man forgive himself for his crimes against others? Whether this involves God or not in immaterial here.

Get Low is an excellent indie film, filled with terrific performances and twists that involve not plot points, but themes about life and death and redemption. I'm down for that over a mindless action film almost any day of the week.

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