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Last-ditch confession


Get Low (M). Director: Aaron Schneider. Starring: Robert Duvall, Bill Murray, Lucas Black, Sissy Spaceck . 103 minutes

Get Low begins with the sight of a blazing rural homestead, and ends with the image of a small group of friends clustered around a humble grave. In between is the story of an old man's last bid for forgiveness and redemption. The film offers a meditation on getting old, and on the desire to garrote regret before mortality makes its final fatal lunge. Also, it's a comedy.

A gnarl of menacing myths has enveloped eccentric loner Felix Bush (Duvall) in the minds of the nearby townspeople. He is part boogeyman, part clown. Local children shirk his 'No Trespassing' signs to toss rocks at the windows of his backwoods shack, and flee in terror at the first sight of his lurching, scruff-bearded presence. Their parents equally mock and fear him.

But Felix's fiercely defended domicile, we discover, is also a self-imposed prison where, for 40 years, he has lived alone in a hell of guilt. We don't know — yet — the source of this guilt, but assume it has something to do with the old photograph of a young woman that he keeps above his bed and to which he speaks tenderly at night. Also, presumably, with that epilogistic vision of a flaming house.

Lately, Felix has death on his mind. He lands on the doorstep of down-on-his-luck funeral director Frank Quinn (Murray) and his boyish assistant Buddy Robinson (Black). He wants to buy a funeral. But not just any funeral. He wants to be alive and present — the guest of honour. And he wants everyone in town to attend. (A big ask for such a feared and hated man.)

Frank is skeptical, but is intimidated by Felix and swayed by the sight of the wad of filthy bills that the old man waves at him. Frank and Buddy find themselves suddenly cast as both party planners and PR reps as they set about turning Felix's scheme into reality. Comedy does ensue, but their gradual discovery of Felix's past, and his deeply buried pain and vulnerabilities, is the film's heart.

Get Low's cast both elevates the film and reinforces its themes. Duvall and Murray have been popular, well-known actors for decades; they are now 80 and 61 respectively. Spacek, who plays a central role as Frank's would-be love interest and a former lover of Felix's, is perhaps best known for her role as a troubled, telepathic high-school student in Carrie (1976). Black is the former child star of mid-1990s TV show American Gothic, in Get Low portraying a working husband and father. The choice of actors in and of itself underpins the film's reflections on the joys and adventures of getting old(er).

The film is especially a showcase for its two lead actors. Murray's comic timing is sharp as ever: watch him down a tumbler of Scotch in the split second before Frank encounters Felix for the first time, and slide into slimy salesman mode as he guides Felix through a showroom of coffins. He is equally capable of gravitas, and captures the wearier aspects of Frank's character (Frank, too, is an ageing, lonely bachelor), and his growing appreciation for the value, beyond money, of Felix's funeral-party.

For Duvall, this is the kind of substantial 'old man' role that great actors must relish during the latter years of their career. Thanks to his introverted but deeply felt performance, his Felix simmers with soul and fury. We can recognise in him the guilt and pain that has tortured him for 40 years.

We learn that the prison of isolation was not his first response to the 'sin' that birthed this guilt. An accomplished carpenter, he built an elegant wooden church, an act of penance and also, perhaps, a bribe to God to let him off the hook of his guilt. When this failed, he chose isolation.

Neither act could substitute for the course he really needed to take, which was, simply, to confess, and accept responsibility; the only true salve for guilt.

Confession, it turns out, is the goal of the funeral-party. During this climactic scene, Duvall delivers a stunning monologue that makes sense of the film's plot and thematic nuances. Felix finally confesses, in front of his peers, in front of those who have become his friends, and in front of God. He can die in peace.

Tim KroenertTim Kroenert is Assistant Editor of Eureka Street. He is a contributor to Kidzone, Inside Film and The Big Issue, and his articles and reviews have appeared in Melbourne's The Age and Brisbane's Courier-Mail. Follow Tim on Twitter

Topic tags: Tim Kroenert, Get Low, Aaron Schneider., Robert Duvall, Bill Murray, Lucas Black, Sissy Spaceck, film



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Existing comments

What an intriguing premise, and amazing cast - thanks for this stylish heads-up.

Barry G | 19 May 2011  

Anohter fine, sensitive, review. Thanks.

Paul Redmond | 20 May 2011  

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