The bifurcation of the American movie industry into big-studio productions (superheroes, explosions, glossy chick-flicks, 3-D, animation, CGI, fantasy, historical spectacle) and independently made features (sometimes receiving major-studio distribution) with potentially complex stories about recognizable human beings has had an interesting effect on the careers of our major film actors.

In the 1970s, a Robert De Niro, an Ellen Burstyn, or an Al Pacino could become a major star by appearing in big, expensive, widely released, splendidly advertised features that were also—ah, golden days of yore!—aimed at adults, not teenaged boys. Remember The Godfather and The Godfather: Part II, Taxi Driver, Deliverance, Raging Bull, Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore? But nowadays, actors like Julianne Moore and Mark Ruffalo, who might have become household names if born a generation earlier, must pursue roles in independent, relatively inexpensive, cautiously distributed movies (such as You Can Count on Me and The Kids Are All Right) in order to keep their talents alive. In a sense, they are stars—but stars for movie buffs, not the masses. (When Gwyneth Paltrow balked at doing Iron Man, Robert Downey chided her, “But don’t you want to be in a movie that people see?”)

With aging actors, the turn toward independent production becomes inevitable. Expensive movies need youthful bodies for violent and sexual acrobatics, and stars over fifty need not apply. (Robert De Niro is the exception that lamentably proves the rule; his numerous police/gangster roles have squeezed his formidable talent into one perpetual scowl. Meryl Streep’s extraordinary success as middle-aged wife and mother in popular comedies is virtually unique.)

Which brings us to Get Low and its stars, Robert Duvall, Bill Murray, and Sissy Spacek, whose combined ages add up to two centuries. Yet the film is no geriatric, sentimental showcase like Cocoon or Tough Guys (the final co-starring of Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas), though aging—and the memories, regrets, and self-questioning that aging brings—are at the core of the story.

Hermit Felix Bush (Duvall) has become a bogeyman for three generations of townspeople in a rural community in Tennessee. Feeling the approach of death, he arranges with the local undertaker (Murray) for a funeral with a twist: he wants the funeral oration to be delivered while he is still alive. Radically alienated from society because of something he did forty years before, a deed that scarcely anybody remembers, Bush now wants to know what humankind makes of him. Has he become merely a monster to scare children into obedience? Is there anybody left on earth who recognizes his humanity? To guarantee an audience, Bush offers all comers to the funeral a chance to win his property by raffle after his actual death (and since it’s the Great Depression, the raffle tickets sell like hotcakes). But will anyone in the gathering crowd provide the testament Bush craves?

A piano teacher (Spacek), who long ago loved Bush, can’t understand what tormented him into solitude. (She does learn later, to her horror.) A black preacher, whose church building was superbly crafted by the hermit and who counts himself a friend, knows exactly what sin Bush committed and insists that the old man confess his shame in public before the minister delivers a eulogy. After a lot of psychological wriggling and backtracking, (spoiler) Bush reaches a compromise with his preacher friend and the funeral unveils the past.

It’s easy to see what attracted Duvall to this role. (He helped finance the movie.) Felix Bush’s mulishness, his tacit defiance of convention, his chagrin, a countrified courtliness, a thickening inner violence leavened by a yearning for love—these recall the qualities of other Duvall roles, notably his three masterpieces, Mac Sledge of Tender Mercies, the fugitive evangelist of The Apostle (a movie written and directed by the actor), and Gus McCrae of Lonesome Dove. But Bush is a distillation, not a stale repetition of the previous work. All actors who have long careers accrue mannerisms that may turn into annoying tics. One of Duvall’s most noticeable gestures is a cocky wagging of the head from side to side in either scorn or jocularity. Here that wagging makes just one appearance and only at an appropriate moment. For the most part, the actor relies on sheer stillness and a haunted stare to justify the remark made by Spacek that Felix, in his youth, had a cave-like quality, and a look into his eyes was a look into dark depths. Duvall makes it clear that, as Bush aged, the cave only deepened.

And that’s not the only purified performance in Get Low. Bill Murray, who has given me more pleasure than any other American actor, has over the last decade shown an unanticipated poignant side to his personality in the films Lost in Translation and Broken Flowers. As Quinn, a funeral director yearning for more bodies to bury, the old sardonic Murray is back. But this time he’s rooted in the melancholy of a restless spirit trapped in a small, uneventful town. Sissy Spacek introduces her character as a small town’s aging beauty, initially charming and quaint, but then expands the character to reveal long-simmering yearnings and bitterness. Still, for all the quality of the lead performances, it’s Bill Cobbs as the Rev. Charlie Jackson who nearly walks off with the movie. He inhabits the minister’s space so easily that he can sum up the minister’s long relationship with Bush simply by the way he cocks his head or raises an eyebrow.

In fact, if I have any quarrel with Get Low, it’s with the way the otherwise good script by Chris Provenzano and C. Gaby Mitchell coasts too much on the fine acting. The writing never pushes through to the essence of the characters. For instance, the young assistant undertaker, Buddy (well played by Lucas Black) seems to be learning something about life through his contact with Bush, but the nature of that insight remains vague. Also, the long-ago love triangle of Duvall, Spacek, and the latter’s dead sister needed a more vivid recollection than it gets. The sister should have become a virtual presence in the action. And Duvall’s funeral oration, though it does pinpoint Bush’s cause for guilt, seems to cry out for richer writing. What I heard seemed like an improvisation by Duvall, delivered in a stop-and-go manner that indicated a straining of the actor’s resources rather than the hesitancy of his character.

Director Aaron Schneider, unknown to me until now, displays a sizeable talent. Aside from achieving (with cinematographer David Boyd) an appropriately autumnal look, he enriches foreground action with background business, as when Duvall reencounters his old friend Spacek on a front porch while behind them the amazed undertaker spies through a window, wondering what the relationship is. And Schneider, who also edited the film, has an interesting way of enlivening the many ruminative conversations with rapid cutting. The fluid visuals nicely counterpoint the slow speeches.

Not that you’ll be much aware of the staging or editing while watching the superlative acting.

Published in the 2010-09-10 issue: View Contents
Richard Alleva has been reviewing movies for Commonweal since 1990.
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