Like many great actors of narrow range, Robert Duvall and Bill Murray -- both leads in the resonant new indie film Get Low -- have grown thoroughly fused in the public mind with the misanthropic loners they habitually play. Try picturing Duvall as Santa Claus or Murray as an extroverted party animal (well, OK, Meatballs), and you'll see what I mean.
In Get Low, the assured directing debut of Kiss the Girls cinematographer Aaron Schneider, Duvall and Murray play monosyllabic Southerners pursuing a common goal for very different reasons. Duvall, craggy and implacable, is Felix Bush, a backwoods hermit who -- after 40 years of self-imposed exile -- rides into town one day in the late 1930s to arrange his own "living funeral." Felix's murky past is the source of many an embellished local legend, and he wants, or so he says, to hear all versions before he dies.
Bush is the scary talk of the town, but all the gossips keep a safe distance from him. Not so the underemployed funeral director Frank Quinn (Murray, wearing a toothbrush mustache and his customary sour half-smile) and his more personable young apprentice (American Gothic's Lucas Black), who mount an aggressive campaign to win Felix's business. So begins a struggle for control over the event -- and over Felix's history -- that segues into a darkly comic, oddly sweet effort to stage the most sensational memorial this sleepy town has ever seen.
The key to Felix's isolation lies in a long-buried secret involving two women, one of them played with discreet sparkle by Sissy Spacek, the other appearing in a worn old photograph. Hovering in the wings is an enigmatic minister (the excellent Bill Cobbs) who, for reasons he'd prefer to keep to himself, is none too keen to preach at Felix's premature wake.
Handsomely and vividly mounted, in a palette of period chocolates and golds, Get Low opens with an image of a burning man running from a house on fire -- an enticing promise of Southern Gothic that the movie never quite fulfills. The crisply retro screenplay by Chris Provenzano (Mad Men) and C. Gaby Mitchell (Blood Diamond) has been lathered up from tales of a real-life Tennessee rake who attracted thousands of "mourners" to his own funeral by selling lottery tickets to his land. The real Felix, a canny early manipulator of the media event, sustained his defiant bravado to the end, but the movie softens his story into a parable of atonement and forgiveness; it's a fleetingly satisfying sort of sentimentality that would have curled the lips of purists like William Faulkner or Flannery O'Connor.
That said, the calculated minimalism of Duvall and Murray -- the way this odd couple dances straight-faced along the line between drama and black comedy -- restores to Get Low its bracing tone of fierce obstinacy. Bursting into speech at last at his own graveside, Felix reveals to the assembled crowd why he chose to live for nearly half a century in a world of stopped clocks. It's less the secret itself -- a standard-issue forbidden romance, albeit one tinged with menace -- that lends these final moments their power to move us, and more the sight of a man achieving what few of us get to do at the tail end of our lives. It's said that funerals are for the living, but Felix, with the aid of an undertaker who thought he lived for no one but himself, steals back his own memorial, clears his own ledger of debit and credit -- and chooses how, when and where he will get low.