The feature debut of director Aaron Schneider could very well be this year’s Crazy Heart. It’s a modestly budgeted production in which regret, redemption and whiskey figure prominently, and two of the cinema’s most towering figures do their most memorable work in years. Robert Duvall and Bill Murray would be wise to keep their award-season schedules wide open.
Duvall will turn 80 in January, and a sense of the end of things permeates the performance he gives as grizzled recluse Felix Bush in Get Low. The character is based on a real-life Tennessee loner who surprised his nearest neighbors by throwing a “living funeral party,” complete with live music and a live Felix Bush, back in the late ’30s.
The idea is that the old man has been living in self-imposed exile for 40 years (“The first 38 are the hardest”), serving a sentence for a tragic accident he’s kept a festering secret. Meanwhile, the citizens of surrounding counties have concocted generations’ worth of bogeyman myths about him. Bush wants to get everybody together and let the truth out. If this does prove to be one of Oscar-winner Duvall’s final screen appearances, it will lend his body of work a poignant symmetry, given his 1962 breakthrough role as the equally misunderstood Boo Radley in To Kill a Mockingbird.
The local minister (Gerald McRaney) won’t have anything to do with the plan, but Bush has better luck with the operator of a floundering funeral parlor played by Murray. Frank Quinn is more than happy to take the job. (“Ooooh,” he says when he hears about the roll of bills Bush offered the preacher. “Hermit money. That’s good.”) He’s even happier when his client comes up with the idea of selling $5 raffle tickets — the prize being his home and extensive woodland property — and having the cash mailed to the undertaker.
Screenwriters Chris Provenzano and C. Gaby Mitchell are too good at what they do to spell out Frank’s backstory, but it’s all there on Murray’s face. It’s a brilliant and supremely funny bit of acting. With the subtlest of gestures and expressions, he suggests the wrestling match that’s been waged inside Quinn for a lifetime, a tug-of-war between honesty and moral flexibility.
Quinn's helping to keep the undertaker on the up and up is Lucas Black as Quinn's Boy Scout of an assistant. Sissy Spacek costars as an old flame who appears on the brink of rekindling things with Felix until she makes a horrifying discovery related to his big secret. Both Black and Spacek are note perfect in their supporting parts.
But the movie belongs to Murray and Duvall. The story is on the slight side, and the final-act hootenanny at which Bush unburdens himself to the assembled proves a tad anticlimactic. But none of that really matters, because the dialogue is so wise and witty, and the two stars breathe such vivid, inventive life into it.
Duvall has played any number of cantakerous codgers, and those performances have certain trademarks in common. The legendary actor has made a point of purging his portrayal of this haunted figure of all familiar tics and mannerisms, however, and the result is a revelation. He outdoes himself. No small feat if you happen to be Robert Duvall.
Murray’s been simplifying his work, reducing it role by role to its essentials. I wouldn’t have thought he could take the process further than he did in Broken Flowers, but his Frank Quinn is a masterpiece of understatement. A film much concerned with the ravages of time, Get Low gives us two screen veterans at the absolute height of their powers.