In 1962, Robert Duvall debuted on the big screen as the reclusive Boo Radley in Robert Mulligan’s adaptation of To Kill a Mockingbird, a role that paved the way for a remarkable acting legacy. Now, nearly 50 years later, Duvall returns as a different recluse, this time a wooly hermit named Felix Bush, and proves he still has what it takes to carry a movie. The great American actor doesn’t have to bear the whole load in Aaron Schneider’s first directorial feature, though. He’s joined by a cherished set of performers, including Bill Murray and Sissy Spacek, who shine just as brightly.
If it wasn’t for these actors and their convincing turns, Get Low wouldn’t surpass mediocrity. Not because of poor storytelling, which is hardly the case, but because the film is built upon intricate characters, specifically Bush. Looking like a fiery Old Testament prophet, Duvall gives his best performance since The Apostle. He becomes a man so overtaken with complexities that he’s lost himself, a man who despite his zeal can’t hide his sadness. This man, Bush, is a living story.
But for the residents of a 1930s Tennessee community, he is a mystery. Having hidden deep in the woods for the last 40 years, Bush is known by some as a murderer and by others a friend of the devil, while in reality no one knows who he really is. That all begins to unravel, though, when he shows his face in town and says the words, “It’s time to get low,” to Frank Quinn (Murray), the owner of a funeral parlor, and his protege, Buddy Robinson (Lucas Black). Bush requests a living funeral, in which people will gather and tell their interpretations of his life.
Quinn, who complains business is slow, agrees without hesitation upon seeing a chance to cash in heavily on Bush’s need, unaware how deep it goes. As the film progresses, Bush reconnects with society and old acquaintances like Mattie Darrow (Spacek) as well as himself. These realizations reveal what he is: an empty, wounded soul who has spent the latter half of his life punishing himself for past sins, unable to forgive himself and release his burdens.
As this suggests, Get Low turns out to be a redemptive, if not Christian, story. While the concept surrounding its title implies many things, Duvall’s personal perspective, which he shared in a recent Christianity Today interview, says everything about how spiritual and complex a movie it is. Duvall said: “It means to get low for Jesus before it’s time. Keep above the ground before you go below the ground.”
This conclusion is discerning and transparent, but to leave Schneider’s film with it alone would undermine its richness and bottomless depth. The Gothic tale not only reflects the love and forgiveness of God, but also the human experience. It finds a place, rooted in themes of self, regret and free will, that anyone can relate to while providing a new set of lenses to view the world through—a fleeting aspect of cinema.
In his first feature film, Schneider appears to be playing it safe, but what he’s really doing is restraining his highly emotional story from getting bogged down in melodrama, avoiding a contrived Hollywood sap that Get Low could’ve easily lost its way in. His best choice, however, was casting leads who do the work for him. Playing off the notion that he’s not trying, Murray, a master of understatement, is remarkable and epitomizes the film’s subtle style. But it’s Duvall’s near flawless performance that keeps that subtlety from feeling cold, giving Get Low its heart and soul.