Many people would pay to see Bill Murray read the phone book, and those people will get their money’s worth in Get Low, a quiet, ponderous indie film about an ornery old coot trying to throw himself a funeral hootenanny in Depression-era Tennessee. As Frank Quinn, Murray plays a city-slicker funeral director with the subtle irony that has marked much of his twilight career (Zombieland being a recent, notable exception), all whiskey flasks and deadpan one-liners. His impeccable timing turns dialog like “hermit money, that’s good!” and “one thing about Chicago, people know how to die,” into catchphrases one can only hope reach the cultural zietgeist. Come for Murray, as many of you will, but stay for the rest of the film, a smooth shot of well-crafted moonshine.
The story, supposedly rooted in some bit of truth, concerns elderly hermit Felix Bush, who reckons that before he dies, he’d like to hear all the halftruths and hogwash the hostile townspeople have spread about him to his living, breathing face at his own funeral party. Robert Duval renders Bush a confounding sumbitch as likely to shoot you with his doublebarrel as cook you rabbit stew. Appearing sometimes as a quickwit and sometimes as a halfwit, Bush is peaceful, funny, and charming one moment, conflicted, enraged, and silent the next. This masterful performance drives the story, creating suspense in getting to the bottom of Bush’s persona rather than Bush getting to the bottom of his grave plot. The only unbelievable aspect of Bush is his good looks; he’s apparently the George Clooney of dirt-poor septuagenarian hillbillies.
Maybe that’s just the lighting, which emphasises dappled sunlight, flickering candles, and impeccable scenery. Or maybe it’s to make Bush’s fleeting re-courtship of old sweetheart Mattie Darrow (Sissy Spacek) more endearing and believable. For a moment, when Bush and Darrow reminisce in Bush’s handbuilt cabin, the mysterious burden Bush carries seems to lift. But a man in self-exile can only elude his ghosts for so long, and Bush’s are back haunting him soon enough, changing the course of his mission — not to hear society’s great misunderstanding of him but to correct it.
There’s a fourth great actor in the movie, Lucas Black, who plays Buddy, the unfortunate assistant Quinn initially saddles with Bush’s party plans in order to get some of that fine “hermit money” that forms a noticeable bulge in Bush’s pockets. Through Buddy’s struggle to keep up with the muttering, manipulative Bush and reluctantly help him achieve his ultimate goal, director Aaron Schneider (his sole previous directing credit is Oscar-winning short film Two Soldiers, based on the Faulkner story) includes short and sweet meditations on self-delusion, grief, and memory. But if that’s too much to comprehend, don’t worry, Murray’s mere presence makes the film worth the price of admission. The rest makes it worth the price of a good review. •
Dir. Aaron Schneider; writ. Chris Provenzano, C. Gaby Mitchell; feat. Robert Duvall, Bill Murray, Sissy Spacek, Lucas Black (PG-13)