Robert Duvall is a delight, but the film's overdirected folksiness gets stale fast.
Somewhere on the outskirts of Tennessee, there lives a mean old hermit in the woods who likes to throw rocks and take shotgun blasts at anybody wandering onto his property. Lately, things have gotten so bad he’s changed the NO TRESSPASSING sign to one that reads NO DAMN TRESSPASSING.
So of course he’s played by Robert Duvall.
A national treasure, Duvall has been periodically playing this same sort of semi-mythological Southern eccentric ever since he showed up as Boo Radley in To Kill A Mockingbird almost 50 years ago. Robert Duvall made half his career out of that cuddly, incorrigible heart of darkness lurking just beneath the Mason-Dixon Line—which is something director Aaron Schneider trades on now, shamelessly.
It’s impossible to imagine Get Low without Duvall as the lead—ornery, trigger-happy recluse Felix Bush. Tommy Lee Jones is a smidge too young, and now that Gene Hackman’s unfortunately retired, we’re really in no country for these kind of old men. (I’d like to assume that at some point Eastwood tossed this cornpone screenplay straight into the circular file.)
Scripted by Chris Provenzano and C. Gaby Mitchell, the movie stars Duvall as a Depression-era boogeyman who finally emerges from the woods after 40 years, throwing his giant wad of rumpled “hermit money” into staging his own funeral. The only catch is that he wants to be around for the proceedings, which in his mind are more a party than a service.
Ulterior motives abound, so much so that the local pastor ( Deadwood genius Gerald McRaney) won’t take the bait. Thank god, then, for Bill Murray. Playing a transplanted Chicago mortician with a penchant for fur-lined topcoats and booze, Murray’s Frank Quinn knows a payday when he sees one, and his deadpan, modern insouciance cuts through Get Low’s folksy solemnity like a cleaver through butter.
The earlier, better parts of Get Low focus on Murray’s mustachioed snake-oil salesman trying to wrangle that big ball of cash away from Duvall, and it’s a pleasure watching these two actors from strikingly different eras and disciplines squaring off. There’s something excitingly incongruous about the way they hit their lines, with post-ironic Murray so tangled up in deftly timed eye-rolls and double entendres he can’t quite figure out the wily, plain-spoken Duvall. The two go together like orange juice and toothpaste, but it’s fun.
Too bad cinematographer-turned-director Aaron Schneider has bigger things on his mind, trotting out a ton of gradually expanding flashbacks, turning Get Low into a morality tale hinging on a shocking revelation that is neither shocking nor revelatory.
The behavior in the movie is what works, odd details that inform the characters and their backgrounds, but Schneider seems to see it otherwise, ramping up the big moments with deafening musical cues then abruptly dropping out the ambient sound and letting the “big” moments play out over shocking silence. Overdirecting in the worst amateur fashion, he hard-sells a quaint story to the point where the allegedly humble little movie feels like it’s puffing out its chest all the time.
Provenzano’s and Mitchell’s screenplay is an actor’s dream, allowing Duvall the run of the table on eccentricity, only maddeningly hinting at Felix Bush’s tragic past until the actor finally gets to blurt it all out in a longhand Oscar-clip monologue that goes on forever and a day, during which Schneider’s camera is always in the wrong place.
Once Duvall’s seriously weird actorly whims take over, Schneider’s too close, too soon, locked in so far he can’t back away to give his actors any breathing room. Robert Duvall is an actor who has always needed space to run; extreme close-ups are not his strong suit, especially not when he’s screaming “WHOO!” on the edge of tears.
The final reel of Get Low is almost unbearable, awash in sanctimony and testaments to a character who isn’t nearly as interesting as the movie thinks he is. Thank god for Murray, along for the ride with eyebrows askance. All this hokum seems seriously annoying to him. He’s not alone.