Get Low (2009; dir. Aaron Schneider) offers a folksong of a story in the vein of “Barbara Allen” or “Long Black Veil.” But folksongs don’t always translate neatly into fully developed narratives. What is suggestive and allusive in a song or ballad, enough so that the listener’s imagination fills out the empty spaces, may seem mere thinness in a traditional film. An old man, Felix Bush, haunted by images of a burning house from the past, decides to stage his own funeral. His reasons are at first unclear. He has lived alone for forty years, stubborn and bitter and hostile. He is childless and has never married. He’s the source of rumor and myth in the community, where everyone knows him by sight but no one really knows him personally. The announcement of the public funeral, to which the whole town will be invited, causes an immediate sensation. Why does he want it? Maybe he wants to dispel the myths about his meanness. Maybe he wants to confess his sins before he “gets low.” Maybe he has other reasons. The idea of a gruff old man who wants to change his ways and make amends, if that is what he means to do, is certainly interesting, and we are more than willing to see where this will take us.
When Mattie Darrow (Sissy Spacek), a woman whom Felix once courted, returns to town, complications develop, not necessarily along the lines we’d expect. And with these complications the film founders. In the last scene, overly sentimental, the film gives up the ghost in more ways than one.
Up until the point when Mattie arrives and the story careens off path, Get Low seems promising. Robert Duvall as Felix is gruff and grisly and, at the age of 80, looks the part of a man preparing to leave this world. Any film that gives Sissy Spacek an acting opportunity is worth seeing. Bill Murray as the undertaker with a checkered past, who sees in Felix’s funeral plans a chance to make some money but who ultimately becomes more interested in Felix than in a profit, is good. And his apprentice Buddy, played by Lucas Black, is effective as well.
The problem is that Felix Bush as a character is not convincing. He’s not all there. Robert Duvall is entirely capable of playing such a character. Witness The Apostle (1988). The logic beneath his sudden shift from irascible misanthrope to a man set on celebrating his demise is weak. As the film moves forward, we learn more about his past and the reasons for the funeral. Both because the unraveling of information comes too late, and because the various threads of the tale finally seem too melodramatically tenuous and contrived, the film seems hollow.
Set in the 1930s, with a storyline reaching back to the 1890s, Get Low depicts characters and a community from a past long since disappeared. Felix himself is the emblem of those vanished times. Though the Southern setting gives the story an atmosphere and a place, it could have happened anywhere. It is not a Southern story but rather one of lost love, guilt, regret, the desire for understanding and forgiveness.