Robert Duvall will turn 80 next year, a fact that hardly seems possible since he's one of those men for whom the term fit as a fiddle should have been invented. But it's been nearly half a century since his first notable role as Boo Radley in 1962's To Kill a Mockingbird. In his latest film, Get Low, Duvall plays a suitably ancient hermit named Felix Bush who senses death's approach and decides to stage and attend his own funeral. Hidden behind an enormous beard that looks to have blossomed and gone to seed long ago, Duvall seems old but when Felix emerges from a haircut and clean shave, audience members could be forgiven for wondering if the actor is too young to be believable in the role.
Actually, he's just right for it, and it is just right for him: without Duvall's rich, supremely skilled performance, this slim period piece wouldn't amount to much. The stuff of local legend in rural Caleb County, Felix has lived in the backwoods for some 30 years, with only a mule for company. He hunts trespassers with a rifle, terrifies small children and is rumored to have killed a man with his bare hands. But the local undertaker, Frank Quinn (Bill Murray), is sorely in need of some business, so he's happy to honor Felix's request, regardless of how strange it is.
The movie is based on the true story of Felix "Bush" Breazeale, a Tennessee recluse who staged his own funeral in 1938, apparently because he wanted to know what people would say about him when he was dead. Breazeale drew a vast crowd by selling lottery tickets for the deed to his land, enjoyed himself, posed for news photographers and lived for another five years.
Get Low quietly meanders, hinting at revelations we feel no particular urgency to learn. We know Felix's contemporaries are dead and gone, which creates a sense that the statute of limitations for any real emotional involvement has passed. The film veers unsteadily between a comic tone and the drama of a guilty conscience in need of a cleansing. Some of the fault lies with the casting of Murray as Frank he's wearing his straightest straight man face, but he delivers every line as if it were comedy gold. When Frank's youthful assistant Buddy (Lucas Black, Sling Blade, Jarhead) tells him he saw Felix waving around a big wad of cash, Frank lights up with Murray's trademark irony-laced enthusiasm. "Ah," he says. "Hermit money."
But that delicious Bill Murray-ness starts to build unfair expectations that the whole movie is going to be a quirky farce about charming hillbillies. When he goes to Illinois to beg Felix's old preacher friend Charlie (Bill Cobb) to give the eulogy, he seems on the verge of mocking Charlie's natural gravitas. In Frank's scenes with Maddie (Sissy Spacek), the pretty widow with whom Felix has a romantic history, he eyes her as if he's contemplating giving her a noogie. We know Murray is capable of living without a punchline, as he did in Broken Flowers and Lost in Translation. But to keep him and our expectations in check, he needs stronger direction than he gets from first time feature director Aaron Schneider.
That's because, for all the quirkiness brought by Murray, Felix's eccentricities and a scene-stealing mule, Get Low's primary goal is to move us. Screenwriter Chris Provenzano, who first heard the story about Breazeale from a friend, and his co-writer C. Gaby Mitchell have assigned Felix a deeper motivation for his early funeral than ego or idle curiosity. He wants a chance to say his peace about the event and the long-lost love that sent him into seclusion in the first place. The payoff for viewers is a classic Duvall hallmark: the unforgettable speech. Some of the best on-screen pronouncements in his oevre are showy "napalm in the morning" comes to mind but often as not, he's commanding without raising his voice. There is almost a modesty to Duvall's delivery, yet you're riveted. Think of that heartbreaking speech in Tender Mercies in which Mac Sledge wonders why his daughter has been killed, but a wretch like him spared. (It was featured on a recent segment of National Public Radio's "Fresh Air," along with a lecture he gives Tommy Lee Jones in Lonesome Dove; listening again in my car, I teared up at both.) Get Low is a lesser screenplay, but Duvall once again makes your eyes sting; you're grateful that this septuagenarian is still getting chances to pull those magical rabbits out of his hat.