I saw Get Low under curious circumstances. I thought I would be seeing a comedy – after all, the film stars Robert Duvall (who has recently been showing his comedic talents in films like Kicking and Screaming and Four Christmases) and Bill Murray, who is my all-time favorite film comedian. The film’s story seems ripe for comedy – Duvall plays Felix Bush, an old hermit who looks like Rip Van Winkle and is talked about the county in hushed whispers, who decides to hold his funeral while he’s still living to hear what others will say about him. Even the trailer seems to present the film in a humorous light, especially in its emphasis on Murray and his always perfect comedic reaction time – go ahead, hit “more” and watch the trailer below to judge for yourself.
So imagine my surprise when, as I was viewing the film, it gradually became clear that Get Low isn’t actually a comedy at all (not even in the vein of Murray’s recent Wes Anderson offbeat comedies), but far more dramatic than I had anticipated. As surprising as this was, I quickly readjusted to enjoying Get Low for the film that it is rather than the film I expected it to be. After all, Murray has recently done drama well in Lost in Translation and Broken Flowers, which utilized his dry, deadpan style of comedy in a subdued enough way to not torpedo each film’s dramatic story. And Duvall, of course, is one of the most gifted dramatic actors, and is still turning in performances as powerful as his classic 1970s roles while fast approaching his eightieth birthday.
Despite Murray’s presence, this is Duvall’s film (Duvall also serves as an executive producer), and it’s hard to imagine any other actor who would be able to portray Bush’s folksy persona while delivering the character’s comedic nuances and the gravity of the drama of Bush’s heartbreaking secret. Though Bush’s idiosyncratic hermit ways make us chuckle at the beginning of the film (which is one of the reasons I wasn’t convinced it wasn’t a comedy during the first few minutes of my viewing), Duvall is powerful enough as an actor to subtly change his approach to the character to reveal Bush’s personal pain that results from a dark secret in his past which has driven him to live his life as an outcast for forty years.
The film contains other strong performances. Lucas Black, who plays Murray’s assistant, seems to genuinely be having the time of his life playing opposite these two icons, particularly in the scene where they take Bush for a shave, haircut, and funeral suit. Murray and Duvall seem to be having a ball in the scene, too, as they trade quips about Duvall’s newly-shorn appearance. Sissy Spacek’s role is smaller than the principal actors, but she provides the emotional weight of the film as the woman who is both burdened and hurt by Bush’s secret. Lastly, Bill Cobbs plays a preacher in his usual wise-in-his-folksy-ways who helps Bush confess his secret to the town which shuns him. The music also adds to the film’s atmosphere and is almost a character itself, as composer Jan Kaczmarek fills the film with the bluesy twang of what you would expect from a film set in 1930s Middle America.
Yet these powerful performances cannot turn the film into the dramatic showcase it really ought to be. The inner conflict of Duvall’s character is what powers the film, yet other meandering plots like Murray’s untrustworthiness, a robbery, and Black’s conscience really don’t go anywhere and seem to be just padding the film’s length so it can reach it’s 103 minute length. They serve as distractions from Duvall’s performance and the film’s main story of a man who refuses to acknowledge his secret past for decades until he finally chooses to do it in the most public manner possible. Again, the scenes with Duvall are the best part of the film, so it seems curious why the filmmakers would keep trying to get our attention elsewhere on minor subplots that are far less interesting than the man we’ve all come to see.
Fans of Duvall and Murray will enjoy Get Low because it’s really a two-man show with smaller, but also strong, performances from Sissy Spacek, Lucas Black, and Bill Cobbs. It’s one of Duvall’s typical fine performances, and Murray is wonderful as usual, yet the meandering plot does stop the film from being held up as one of either man’s finest films. It’s definitely worth a look, but it’s certainly not the type of film that you’ll count among your favorites of either man’s work.
Get Low Trailer