Sunday, August 29, 2010

Get Low

Who wouldn’t want to attend their own funeral? Count the tears shed, mark attendance, enjoy some free sandwiches—plus, it’s so much more fun than being dead, wouldn’t you agree?

Felix Bush would. After 40 years of living in his remote shack with only a graveyard of deceased pets for company, his idea of a good time has unsurprisingly taken a turn to the morbid. He intends to throw the biggest funeral in four counties, luring people with the promise that he will raffle off his land (300 acres of pristine timberland, he claims), and all he has is one simple request—if you attend, you must tell a story about him.

As an isolated, angry coot, there are surely some colourful legends floating around regarding the man and why he withdrew from civil society in the first place. His only human contact appears to be the local children, who throw rocks at his windows when they’re feeling particularly brave. He’s the local monster, existing in the public’s mind only as a way of frightening the young. In Get Low, director Aaron Schneider sets about to the task of redeeming this forbidding figure and revealing the decency and suffering that are buried somewhere behind that scraggly beard and crazy mountain-man eyes.

The film spells out its redemptive intentions in very clear terms. At the funeral, an old friend of Felix introduces the hermit by declaring that good and evil are not separate, but rather exist in us entangled. In this rather innocuously drifting tale, such a loaded pronouncement appears as if underlined, circled, and with arrows drawn to it from a hastily scribbled note that says—nay, shouts—“THIS IS THE POINT OF THE MOVIE.” So pay attention, will you?

You could be forgiven for not watching too closely until that point. The mystery of Felix’s past—involving a torched house and the deaths of its inhabitants, which Felix may or may not have been responsible for—lends a bit of foreboding to this otherwise sleepy Depression-era tale. The drama is inert, despite some half-hearted complications intended to ramp up interest, but the skill of the actors involved enlivens the film. Robert Duvall, as Felix, is as magnetic as ever, and the film couldn’t function without his uniquely cranky charisma. (As an actor, Duvall has a special talent for making peevishness not seem ignoble. Clearly, this man has a bright future playing weirdo hermits and gummy coots should he so wish.)

And Bill Murray, as Frank Quinn, the greasy funeral director, brings his dependable deadpan to assure us we’re never too far from at least a dry, bemused chuckle or two. Yet despite being largely comic relief, Murray still finds opportunities for little doodles of middle-aged melancholy in the margins of the story. Quinn is shown as a drunkard and divorced man. He reveals himself in moments of sad, lonely desperation, such as when he asks to walk home Mattie (a widow and Felix’s ex-girlfriend, played by Sissy Spacek), only to be rebuffed with a gentle pity that hurts more than any open cruelty.

Such details are sadly rare to the film, which is partly why it’s so underwhelming despite sporting such a banner cast (a sense of detail, particularly regarding secondary characters, is not one of Schneider’s talents, meaning this film built around a single community feels inhabited by about five people and some extras). The other significant problem lies in the clumsy mishandling of the climactic revelations of Felix’s past. Actually, let’s modify that statement: Schneider tanks the entire final third of the film. Felix’s past 40 years were apparently a kind of penitent exile, except that his confession comes wrapped up with a convenient scapegoat—someone guilty of even worse sins—to ensure that he gets his teary reconciliation at the end. If the film intended to show us how good and evil co-exist in one man, then perhaps it should have allowed a bit of actual evil in Felix’s character. Otherwise, his 40 years in the woods are nothing more than one epic pity party.

If I was standing in that crowd at Felix’s funeral, I’d feel a bit cheated at all of this (I suppose, in a sense, the film’s audience is part of that crowd). Imagine: here I had come from across the county to tell my story about the time the loony hermit guy shot at me when I was picking blueberries on his land, and when I get there, all I see is some old guy giving a woe-is-me speech addressed to someone named Mattie (Mattie?), and then there’s a raffle and we all go home. Frankly, I think I would prefer a few tall tales to the mawkish truth.


CreativeTide said...

Just saw this one this weekend. I agree that the moral was presented very heavy-handedly, but I also enjoyed the actors' takes on the characters so much that I could mostly overlook that aspect.

I was also disappointed with the "big" revelation which felt kind of like "That's it? That's *all* you did? You were practically a hero and yet you were so ashamed of it all? Fucking cry baby!" So, as a whole piece, it wasn't perfect by any means, but I really enjoyed the little gems, and the overall feel of the movie.

A couple of things that they could have predictably done but thankfully didn't:

I kept waiting for Bill Murray to rip off the old guy's money. I was surprised and glad they didn't make us go there...

I also expected them to show the old guy dying dramatically, either alone and clutching his chest (totally thought it was going to happen that one time in the barn), or surrounded by the people who he'd won over, all sharing a touching deathbed love-in. Again, glad they did neither and while they did show whats'er face's ghost come to meet him (ugh), at least they spared us the glurge of watching him die.

Oooh! And the whole religious aspect seemed foreboding throughout, and I expected him to be "saved" by the end of it, so I was glad they didn't go there either.


Joe Wet Cow said...

Hey James! Thanks for commenting. I'm glad you reiterate the pleasure of watching these actors. I do think that the film's chief virtue lies in the performances of old pros like Murray and Duvall, who at this point probably couldn't make an unwatchable movie if they tried. Both get some nice little moments here. There are years of finely honed instincts that go into each one of Murray's blank looks and deliberate pauses. The results should be savoured.

On the other hand, while a good performer can do a lot with dialogue on the page, regardless of whether it is good or bad, there isn't much they can do to compensate for a weak plot or inexperienced director. But still, the film is far from worthless, even if I do think it's ultimately a disappointment. You just take your pleasures where you can, and then discard the waste.