Robert Duvall has created many of the movies most memorable characters. He was a cog in the futuristic wheel of George Lucas’ THX 1138. He was the stable center – in many ways the heart and soul – of the mafia family in The Godfather. He was tender and so in need of mercy as down-and-out country singer Mac Sledge in Tender Mercies.
And the hallmark of a great Duvall performance has always been quiet understatement. Even in a flashy role as Lieutenant Colonel Bill Kilgore in Apocalypse Now, his most moving moment is his quietly uttering “Someday this war is going to end” before sighing and walking away.
The fine little indie movie Get Low is very much a vintage Duvall role in these respects. It is largely wordless and he only takes action when cornered. Entire scenes are carried by the wrinkles crisscrossing his cheeks and the nearly 80 years that shine forth from his craggy eyes. It’s also a beautiful bookend holding one end his life’s work in place.
Duvall made his first big splash on the silver screen in To Kill a Mockingbird as Arthur ‘Boo’ Radley, a quiet, misunderstood young man in a Depression-era Southern town. He doesn’t express himself. And, to fill in the blanks, the townsfolk spread rumors of his past, the types of stories that terrify young children on Halloween nights.
Duvall’s Felix Bush in Get Low is just as quiet and even more misunderstood. He’s been a hermit in Tennessee for 40 years, plenty of time for the rumors of the nearby townsfolk to fester into full fledged legends. Something happened in his distant past, something he’s kept locked away for a long time.
Bush needs to get this deep dark secret out into the open. He needs to have the townsfolk understand him. He doesn’t want to pass away and have his secrets die with him. To get the secret out, he decides to throw his own funeral party, while still alive. But he needs help and this ultimately leads him to Frank Quinn (the wonderful Bill Murray).
Quinn is a funeral director with a problem. Not enough people in town are dying. He wonders if he’ll go broke while providing a service that everyone needs, eventually. So, understandably, he jumps at the opportunity to get his foot in the door early with Bush. Soon he’s visiting Bush at his home deep in the woods and giving him all the help he needs to make his rather unusual party a reality.
Get Low is about an old man’s need to make peace with the past. It has a long fuse slowly burning toward a big revelation where Bush lets it all out in one big explosion of feeling. And this structure works. The buildup is well drawn out and the big funeral speech is satisfying, it had a way of leaving me in my seat reflecting back on the whole movie.
The movie reminded me of Paris, Texas and it is only by such a comparison that it pales. Paris, Texas contains a big reveal in its final scenes that is harrowingly detailed by playwright Sam Shepard. It leaves you in a similarly reflective mood. It also leaves you shattered, torn apart, helpless. The funeral speech in Get Low just isn’t given enough pages to achieve the same power.
I recommend you see both of these movies as a double-bill. Just do Get Low a favor and watch it first.