Saturday, April 9, 2011

Get Low (2009)

'Get Low' finds Robert Duvall playing an aging hermit by the name of Felix Bush who's lived in near seclusion on 300 some-odd acres for forty or so years. His main preoccupation, we're to infer, is caring for his mule and lands, punctuated every now and again with chasing off the errant youngsters that come to throw rocks through his windows. The tale is set in the early 20th century, perhaps, but it's conceivable that it might be set in some ideal, fictionalized version of Americana, in which everything is polished wood and old-timey.

Felix appears to be fairly content with his lot, with his main grumbles concerning those who trespass on his land and solitude. After being informed of the death of a friend and haunted by recurring dreams, Felix's thoughts turn towards his own mortality and impending doom, and he decides that it is time to travel into town to draw up funeral plans. Bush, with a Walt Whitman-style beard and Thoreauvian attitude, is a character that I'm instinctively drawn to like despite his grousing. But individuals like him, mysterious loners, are inscrutable to most, and most fear what they do not understand. As a result, the townsfolk have concocted numerous tall tales over the many, many years of his self-ostracism. They despise him; yet for what, they do not know. Rumors and whispers are all people know of his past.

Felix determines to throw an unconventional funeral for himself, seemingly as a result of his reputation for ill, although it's clear that the true reason is being withheld. He enlists the help of the local mortician (Bill Murray) and his pious assistant (Lucas Black), and begins to plan a ceremony in which anybody who has a story to tell about Felix may attend and relate it.

When Felix reveals his plan, I got excited, anticipating an exploration of the ways in which other peoples' views and stories about us shape our identity, or perhaps how the identity created for us by other relates to who we 'truly' are. Unfortunately, the movie veers in a different direction.

It comes to light that some evil deed occurred in Bush's pre-hermit life and was the cause of his seclusion. Indeed, forty years on, and the act still haunts him. As we learn this, the purpose of the funeral changes, and it becomes apparent that the ceremony is an excuse for him to speak, not listen.  It's a form of therapy for a man who's sequestered himself away from society as punishment, only to find that exile was not enough. Some things aren't solved by self-flagellation, but by confession - not a metaphysical confession, but an apology to those who were wronged. As Felix puts it, "They keep talking about forgiveness...'Ask Jesus for forgiveness.' I never did nothing to him." Bush doesn't want forgiveness from God but from man - woman, in fact, as the mysterious deed that Bush seeks to confess to concerns Mattie Barrow (a tearful, wistful Sissy Spacek).

Here, though, is where the movie begins to falter, in my opinion. We are constantly be led to the edge of conclusions that never get developed. Bush seeks forgiveness from man, not from deity - it's clearly established that talking therapy, an intense, public, 'getting it off your chest' was all that Bush needed to reach psychological inner peace. Instead of delving into some sort of explanation as to why confession to man is more satisfying than confessing to God, the movie retreats, leaving us waiting for a conclusion, a reasoning, a why, that never comes. The director feels that it is enough to say that confessing worked for Felix Bush, and that an explanation of why it worked is unnecessary.

There are aspects of the plot, too, that are never finished, and add nothing to the story. A side plot about a lottery that Felix establishes to raffle off his lands goes nowhere. He solicits money, five dollars per ticket - but we don't know what the money is for. Lucas Black's character even gets beaten by miscreants protecting the money - but his anonymous attackers remain so. Had the movie kept up its thread of ambiguity, the lack of resolution to these scenes would have been fine. As it is, though, the movie moves away from ambiguity as it concludes, answering the main mystery of the story - but these mundane questions remain unanswered, and we dwell on them, and consequently, they distract from the overall impact. 

Robert Duvall's performance is the absolute highlight of the movie. Wry, bitter, yet with a sense of humor all to his own, his Felix Bush is incredibly well developed and deep, but as a measure of his talent, he refrains from stealing the show and dominating scenes - no easy feat. But then again, Duvall's acting has always had a understated nature to it, even as he brings powerful characters to the screen.

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