Get Low, the first feature directed by Aaron Schneider, is based on one of those true stories that seem indistinguishable from legend. In the late 1930s a man from East Tennessee named Felix Breazeale decided to give himself a funeral before he was even dead. It was, by all accounts, a lively affair, with musical entertainment and a raffle to attract the public, and it left behind a vapor trail of mystery. Who was this character? What was he thinking?
The film’s answer to the second question is a bit unsatisfying, which is forgivable since its answer to the first question is Robert Duvall. This means that though the story sometimes wanders into hazy, corny sentiment, its protagonist (called Felix Bush, which was apparently a nickname or alias of Breazeale’s) is vivid, enigmatic and unpredictable. Duvall, now 80, has recently specialized in small, indelible character parts: the police department patriarch in We Own the Night; the blind survivor speaking in apocalyptic riddles in The Road; the sobered-up bar owner helping Jeff Bridges’s Bad Blake through Crazy Heart.
These contained, welcome appearances are reminders that this actor has gone nearly 50 years in movies virtually without a false note. And Get Low, giving him time and room to explore the crevices of a wily, wounded soul, proves that Duvall is still able to carry a movie easily and gracefully.
It is a lesser movie than The Apostle (1997), which he wrote and directed and which remains on of the most astute screen treatments of American religion and the American South. But Felix Bush shows an unmistakable kinship with the Apostle E.F., the wayward holy man he played in that earlier film. Duvall is too rough, too strange, too capable of surprising himself and everyone around him to be any kind of type.
Unlike E.F, a man of fleshly appetites and spiritual convictions, Felix is cussedly secular and stubbornly monastic. He lives alone in a house in the woods on the edge of town, keeping his neighbors at a distance and the whole county on edge. For company he has a mule, a shotgun, a few dozen jars of home-brewed herbal medicine and a faded photograph of a woman he once loved and lost.
News of an old acquaintance’s death — delivered by a nervous local pastor (Gerald McRaney) — puts Felix in mind of last things. So he heads into town with a big wad of “hermit money,” hoping to purchase pre-emptive last rites. He finds a taker in Frank Quinn (Bill Murray), a transplanted Chicagoan who runs a funeral parlor. Frank and Buddy (Lucas Black), his earnest young assistant, serve as chauffeurs, fashion consultants and event promoters for their client, who rewards them with suspicion, grouchiness, and an occasional burst of rustic humor.
The prospect of death brings Felix back into the life of the town, which had grown accustomed to seeing him as a kind of bogeyman. He renews a long-dormant acquaintance with Mattie (Sissy Spacek), an old friend and also, it seems, an old flame. His only other meaningful connection from his previous life is with a preacher (Bill Cobbs) who lives in Illinois and who refuses Felix’s initial request that he lead the unorthodox funeral service.
As Get Low meanders toward its resolution, sign posts appear pointing in a familiar direction: toward the revelation and redemption of a long-buried tragedy. Felix, we suspect, will at last be explained, accepted and absolved. When this happens, it is something of a letdown, but that is partly because the film is for the most part so richly and comfortably human that it hardly needs the melodramatic amplification of its end.
The deepest pleasure of Get Low, which was written by Chris Provenzano and C. Gaby Mitchell, comes from watching the players play. Spacek enlivens her sweet, quiet role with a necessary dash of vinegar. Murray, impish as ever, keeps the full range of Frank’s motives and feelings tucked up his sleeve. He is greedy, a little shady and basically decent, but the precise balance of these qualities remains in some doubt right up to the end.
The compound of grief, resilience and ornery meanness that defines Felix is even more volatile. Buddy, who becomes Felix’s full-time chauffeur and part-time sidekick, can never tell if, at any given moment, his prize client will show rage, charm, sorrow or plain old backwoods American weirdness.
More of that last trait would have helped Get Low rise above its limitations. But it may be that the full measure of the real Felix Breazeale’s life cannot be taken by a movie that stays safely within currently dominant conventions of storytelling and that wraps unruly material into a tidy narrative package. But if Get Low is, in the end, not quite believable, Duvall’s performance is the opposite.