‘Get Low’ holds a funeral for the living

“The thing about having a funeral is that you need to be [pause] deceased,” says Buddy, assistant at the funeral home, as he tries to delicately explain this common practice to his prospective customer, Felix Bush, in the Depression-era film Get Low.

Bush, played by four-time Oscar-winner Robert Duvall, is a mysterious old hermit who has lived alone for forty years and decides that he wants to attend his own funeral. He cares little for convention and plans his funeral as a party he intends to attend, inviting anyone who has a story to tell about him. The populations of several towns are drawn to the funeral party, partly through the promise of a lottery for his 300-acre property and partly through curiosity, as the mysterious Mr. Bush has planned to explain why he exiled himself into the backwoods forty years ago.

Bush, the central character of the film, is a rude, reclusive old hermit who answers the door to his isolated home with a shotgun in hand. The sign outside his Tennessee backwoods home reads, “No D-MN trespassing. Beware of Mule.”

By the time depicted in the movie, Bush has become a local legend swathed in forty years of gossip and speculation. Children are told stories of the Bush boogey man, and there are rumors circulating that he has killed people. The town’s animosity towards Bush is palpable in the turned heads as he comes into town and the loud whispers that accumulate. The surrounding counties carry a deep-rooted fear of the unknown, and nothing is quite as unknown to them as Bush. No one knows exactly what he did, but it has caused Bush to spend forty years in self-imposed isolation.

While the plot is relatively generic, the acting makes the movie worth watching. Duvall infuses the gruff and unkempt Bush with a tortured guilt without turning melodramatic. For the most part, Bush is a man of few words. Even with his mumbled, slurred speech, gruff mannerisms and rusty social skills (perhaps living in the woods for 40 years will do that to a guy), there are glimpses of a once charming and compelling man wasted away through years of guilt and solitude. As the storyline progresses and more clues are uncovered, Duvall appropriately shifts his portrayal of Bush from bellicose and reticent to vulnerable, unearthing Bush’s true personality from beneath the archetypal backwoods bogeyman.

Equally as good as Duvall is Bill Murray, who plays the role of the shady funeral home director. “People are dying in bunches,” he sighs. “Except here.” A former used car salesman with a failing business and questionable morals, Frank Quinn eagerly agrees to plan Bush’s funeral once he sees the giant ball of money the hermit has offered. Quinn’s sacrilegiously flippant view of death, not to mention his unabashed opportunism, adds comic relief to counterpoint the rest of the film. One scene shows Murray’s face leaning over a coffin in what seems like somber reverence for a deceased client – until the camera shot expands to show him tenderly storing wads of money in the box instead. Despite his avarice-driven role, Frank is not wholly a one-dimensional character: He has enough experience with guilt and loneliness to partially understand the enigmatic Bush.

Get Low rests on several well-worn archetypes, including the enigmatic, misunderstood recluse, apprehensive townspeople and a comedic foil. Yet if these roles are effective in the movie, it is more to the credit of the actors than the screenwriters. Ultimately, Get Low is a movie worth watching for its skilled and sympathetic acting rather than its less-than-intriguing plot line.

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