Shortly after I saw Aaron Schneider’s 1930s period piece Get Low at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival, I coyly tweeted the following summation of the film: Boo Radley speaks. That character was the first role Robert Duvall ever had in Robert Mulligan’s adaptation of To Kill a Mockingbird. In the years since, he has enjoyed an illustrious career at the crest of nearly every creative wave that has swept over tinsel town. In Mr. Schneider’s film he plays Felix Bush, a Tennesse recluse as enigmatic as Harper Lee’s Radley looking to reintegrate with the town surrounding him before his last days. The trouble is, the more I play the film over in my head, the more I understand why Boo Radley is allowed only a single line of dialogue instead of his own book: the allure behind society’s outliers is in the mystery surrounding their status, rarely in the unfurling of that tale.
At the film’s outset, we come to recognize Felix as the village kook; a beardy old man who gets his kicks scaring the hell out of kids and adults alike. Duvall wears curmudgeon well, snarling glassy eyed at all he meets. The beard is a mask, a source of power for him. Denied redemption from a holy man, Felix heads to the next best thing: a money hungry funeral director, Frank Quinn, played by Bill Murray, who doffs his signature deadpan smirk. Bush and Quinn hatch a plan to have the whole town come out to celebrate Felix’s funeral, only while he is still alive. Unorthodox, yes, but Felix is essentially sitting on piles of cash which Frank can’t wait to get his hands on. And so the game is on.
First order of business, unfortunately, is to lose Felix’s beard. Now, Duvall is Duvall with or without a great big beard, but everything seems to change for some reason once it goes away. It is much easier to understand Felix, to relate to him, once he looks like everybody else, which frustrates me. His aged, bare face warrants empathy immediately, which is just too easy. There is no real obstacle for the townspeople; why not go to the living funeral of the weak-looking rich old man?
Sissy Spacek plays Mattie Darrow, one of the only people in the town who smiles when she sees Felix. She is also one of the only people who knows the truth about his past, about the events that turned him into a recluse. The role comes with a lot of baggage, but Ms. Spacek is up to the task. Her and Mr. Duvall put on a wonderful show, including a lovely candlelit scene. In both their cases, and even moreso for Bill Murray, the trick to their performances is in their eyes. The toughest way to transcend stardom and enter a new character is to get your eyes to do the talking as someone else. The leads here are all incredible talents who deliver to-rate performance, which more likely than not will earn at least a few nomination come awards season.
In the end, however, Get Low is a story about a story, and not such an involved one at that. The whole film, we are promised a payoff at the end, as the whole town is. What makes Felix Bush tick? It is hinted at throughout, but never in a meaningful way. Instead Mr. Schneider and writer Chris Provenzano and C. Gaby Mitchell save the whole of his tale for the hurried ending, which does not quite live up to the anticipation. It is billed as a reveal, only nothing is revealed at that point that we didn’t already know, except of course the intentionally held back facts.
It seems out of place for a film as emotionally driven as this one to rely on simple facts, the simple narrative of Felix Bush, as harshly as it does. It is a confusing mix to be sure, and one that will please some and frustrate others. The leads pull this film through right up to the bitter end, but even the high points can’t fix the jumbled narrative