By Brian Prisco | Film | July 30, 2010 |
By Brian Prisco | Film | July 30, 2010 |
Some stories take their time in the telling. Aaron Schneider, a cinematographer turned director, who won an Academy Award for his short film, decided that for his feature film debut, he’d pack a Southern gothic tale with more stars than there are sky. The end result is Get Low, a powerful folktale about a lonely hermit who decides to throw himself a funeral party so he can hear all the stories people are telling about him while he’s still alive. It’s a pretty simple story, but it’s packed with so much pure acting, it’s going to suck you in and never let go. Pound for pound, I have yet this year to see performances that can match up with the sheer volume and assuredness of the four leads in this film. Like a skilled gourmet, Schneider knows that when your ingredients are of this quality, you don’t need to do too much cooking to make a fine meal. And that’s what Get Low feels like: a sumptuous down-home spread that will satisfy.
I adore Flannery O’Connor, and that’s what Get Low feels like: a particularly outstanding Southern gothic fable straight out of the pages of A Good Man is Hard to Find or Everything That Rises Must Converge. O’Connor always reminded me of one of those sweet old porch rocker ladies who keeps a shotgun just out of view, but just in reach. She’ll feed you a mason jar of lemonade and just when you think she’s gonna offer you another glass, she offers you the antidote. Get Low starts with a horror — from a distance we see a house on fire, and then someone comes running from the wreckage. The story we learn is never the story we necessarily expect. Which kind of nicely sums up Felix Bush (Robert Duvall), who’s kind of the town nut job. He lives alone, a beard and mad eyes gleaming from the distance, a feral creature you’d expect to see if you shined a lantern off your back porch in the dead of the night. Felix’s reputation is steeped in rumor — a murderer, a madman, a lunatic, a monster. And yet, from our view, Felix seems like a blunt but normal fella.
Felix travels into town to obtain the services of the local funeral director, a snake-oil salesman hawking coffins by the name of Frank Quinn (Bill Murray). Felix offers up a small fortune for Quinn and his young assistant Buddy (Lucas Black) to give him a “funeral party.” Essentially, he wants people to show up and tell all the stories about him like they would when he was dead — only he wants to hear them while he’s still alive. Hungry for the cash, Quinn readily agrees, and he and Buddy begin trying to track down all the old souls in Felix’s life. But if you turn over a rock, you might not like what comes crawling out. There’s a history between Felix and an old widow named Mattie Darrow (Sissy Spacek) that comes to light through the ruffling.
When you have actors of this caliber, you don’t need a whole lot of story to hang their performances on. This is the opposite of Inception — all the complexity and the razzle dazzle is in the understated two-fisted acting of the leads. It’s easy to forget just how amazing an actor Robert Duvall is. He always plays kind of kooky, good-hearted hucksters, a faithful basset hound of a man who’ll always be there with a smile and shake of the head. Watching him embody Felix, staring into the man’s eyes, you understand why Fellini bothered to turn on a camera. He’s a phenomenon: charming and dangerous, frightening and funny, and all while seemingly standing still. It’s a powerful performance, and one that had damn well better be recognized come Oscar time. As an actor, you pray to the Gods of Theatre, Song and Hellfire, that one day, you can give half a performance this good.
Bill Murray’s a terrific actor. I know it seems like we say this on a daily basis in praise of him, but in all honesty, rarely does he turn in a weak performance. Like Kevin Kline, Kevin Spacey, and Walter Matthau, he excels at playing the lovable shit. He’s in that rare cadre of actors who takes asshole and turns it into an art form. His pricks are poetic; his bastards sublime. Watching him play Frank Quinn, this total lizard of a man, makes you realize just why we love him. He’s a Shakespearean fool, comic relief without going for punch lines or catch phrases. He has the levity because it’s in his spirit, so you don’t have to watch him joust with Duvall, but dancing with him, makes the movie worthwhile.
Sissy Spacek is like fine wedding china. To use her everyday would cheapen her, so you break her out on the finest occasions, and it just raises the elegance of the event that much more. Her character is so intricately worked here. Most actresses worth their salt can play a long lost love interest, or a sort of kickass old-lady firebrand. Mattie is neither of those things, and yet she is — to explain more about her character would peel too much back from the grape of this tale. There are very few actresses working today who would be able to hold their own against what Duvall’s doing in this film, and Spacek goes beyond that.
Lucas Black seems to frown and scowl his way through the best films. He’s got the heaviest lifting in the entire piece, merely to maintain among these luminaries. And he’s always done that since Sling Blade and into Friday Night Lights. He’s a country-fried Ed Norton, a sulking skinny kid who seems possessed by an older man’s soul. He’s still playing a version of Carl Childers’s pal Frank, only he’s grown into the promise he showed back then.
All credit to the screenwriters Chris Provenzano and C. Gaby Mitchell for developing such a wonderful template, but I’m giving most of the credit to the assured direction of Aaron Schneider. Most young directors going the indie route might take on one actor of such caliber for his feature debut, but Schneider managed the lot. The entire picture buzzes and crackles with the energy of the actors, but unlike most star-studded ensembles, the film as a whole works as a cohesive piece. It’s not just a collection of strong performances, the entire project is like a solid quilt. It’s a remarkable film, not just in and of itself but as a full-length feature debut from a young relative newcomer. And, if you’re willing to take the time to relax and let the film feed out like spider silk, you’ll be richly rewarded.