Robert Duvall was 30 years old when he played Boo Radley, the reclusive man who set all the townsfolk tongues a-waggin’ in “To Kill a Mockingbird.” Now, almost half a century later, he plays a similar role in “Get Low.” The two movies are perfect bookends for an extraordinary career — or would be, that is, if this were Duvall’s last movie, which it won’t be. I wouldn’t be surprised if he has a dozen more in him. He’ll probably outlive me.
In the utterly pleasant and charming “Get Low,” set in the South in the 1930s, Duvall plays an old recluse named Felix Bush. With a crazy old mountain-man beard and a shotgun at the ready, Felix is the kind of coot that the local kids tell stories about, daring one another to throw rocks at his windows. He is alleged to have done something awful many years ago, some unknown thing that has grown mythical with time. He lives alone and doesn’t want visitors. The sign he’s put at the edge of his property reads “NO DAMN TRESPASSING BEWARE OF MULE.”
Aware that his life is drawing to a close, Felix comes to town to buy a funeral. This is good news for the local mortician, Frank Quinn, whose business has been failing of late. (“What are the odds of a funeral home going broke?” he muses. “You have a business that everyone on Earth needs. If you can’t make that work, it’s you, right?”) Frank, played by Bill Murray, has the classic Bill Murray qualities of insincerity and impishness: the adorable huckster.
Felix Bush’s request is unusual. He wants to have his funeral now, while he’s still alive, and invite everyone in the county to come tell their scary stories about him. Frank believes that the customer is always right, especially when the customer drops a huge ball of cash (“hermit money”) on the desk. If Felix wants a funeral that most people in the area will be afraid to come to, that’s what Felix will get.
As the film moseys along, directed with sensitivity and wry humor by Aaron Schneider, it gradually reveals Felix’s past. He reunites with Mattie (Sissy Spacek), who was an old flame of his, back in the day. He spends time planning things with Buddy (Lucas Black), the young married fellow who is Frank Quinn’s only employee. We come to realize that Felix wants this “funeral” so that he can get some things off his chest that have been bothering him for some 40 years.
Though the story eventually addresses some serious topics, the film remains light, buoyed by Duvall’s twinkling energy and Murray’s blithe detachment. Lucas Black provides good-ol’-boy decency — there’s a lot of uplifting decency here — while Gerald McRaney and Bill Cobbs are on hand as a couple of reverends.
What makes this sweet tale of redemption so effective is that Felix Bush, who could have been nothing more than a hermit caricature, comes across as a genuine person. Felix’s mind is still sharp even if he’s gone a little dotty, and Duvall fleshes the character out with endearing tics and quirks. Duvall has graduated to the status of old coot, and “Get Low” is something like his 75th movie, yet he approaches the performance with the vigor and devotion of an eager young actor fresh out of drama school. That dedication makes this good film into a terrific one.
B+ (1 hr., 43 min.; )