Confessing a Story

When I get around to creating my list of the most spiritually significant films of 2010, Get Low will certainly be included and will most likely top the list.  My review of one of the best films you’re likely to see this year after the jump.

Get Low tells the story of Felix Bush (Robert Duvall), an old hermit who has built a cabin in the woods and shut himself off from the world for over 40 years.  It is clear that a tragic event from his past haunts him but neither the audience nor the folks who live around Felix know exactly what it is until the end of the film.  Stories and rumors pass among the townspeople…some say he killed a man, others imply that he harmed women and children as they warn him to stay away from them when he rarely wanders into town.  One day, Felix decides that he wants to be present (alive) at his funeral and sets about planning it.  What he really wants is an end-of-life party in which everyone who has a story about him is invited to tell it and which will conclude with him telling his own story after  all these years.  When Felix visits Rev. Gus Horton (Gerald McRaney) to request his services, Rev. Horton refuses, but Buddy (Lucas Black), a funeral director, overhears his plan and rushes to tell his colleague/boss, Frank Quinn (Bill Murray).  Quinn Funeral Home is a struggling business, and Frank laments that people around the town aren’t dying fast enough…at least not like the folks in Chicago, for example, who know how to die quickly and in a variety of ways.  The film follows Frank and Buddy’s work with Felix to plan his unusual funeral.  Along the way, Felix announces via radio broadcast that he will raffle off his cabin and surrounding timber after his death.  Tickets are only $5, and the money pours in.  As the film progresses, we learn bits and pieces about Felix’s life through reflections from his close friends, Rev. Charlie Jackson (Bill Cobbs) and Mattie Darrow (Sissy Spacek), however, the filmmakers withhold the truth until Felix shares it with everyone at his funeral.

Felix Bush (Robert Duvall) has got some confessin' to do.

The strength of Get Low is in its casting, perhaps one of the best examples of how crucial this aspect of filmmaking really is.  Duvall gives one of the best performances of his stellar career and should surely be considered for an Oscar nomination in a few months.  It’s not that he’s getting better with age…he’s had performances that have been just as good…but rather his age, it seems, gives him the necessary experience to play this role.  His final confession is one of the more heart-wrenching scenes you’re likely to see in the movies this year.  Murray, on the other hand, gives the film some levity with subtle comic relief.  The brilliance of his character and his acting is that we’re never quite sure whether he genuinely cares about Felix’s wishes or if he will simply run off with the money as soon as the funeral is over.  Black does a fine job of conveying a young funeral worker who is torn between a genuine respect and concern for an elderly man’s wishes and guarding against any exploitation that might take place.  Cobbs and Spacek are simply perfect in their somewhat minor but crucial roles.

We're a little unsure of Frank Quinn (Bill Murray).

Of course all of these performances benefit from some fantastic writing.  The film strings us along and keeps our interest as we, like everyone else, desire to know what happened to Felix or what he did that has caused him to shut himself off from the world.  As I mentioned before, we learn bits and pieces along the way, but even in these snippets of information, there is much room for debate about what really happened until Felix tells his story.

I’m certainly not going to reveal much about that story here, however, it was a tragedy with deep moral and emotional implications.  People kept telling Felix that he needs to ask God for forgiveness.  This notion of asking God/Jesus for forgiveness for actions that harmed other people is one of the film’s central spiritual/theological/religious themes.  Get Low seems to suggest that our first concern in the path of forgiveness and reconciliation should be with those whom we have harmed directly.  It suggests that we might only fully be reconciled to God after we have made peace with our neighbors.  Felix reflects on all the people who have told him to ask Jesus for forgiveness and says gruffly, “I never did nothin’ to him.”

In the process, Get Low, as Rev. Jackson says at Felix’s funeral, reveals that good and evil are often closely intertwined.  They’re not nearly as black-and-white as most of the townspeople’s rumors suggest.  Felix might be guilty of creating a tragic situation that requires confession, but he is also a man of immense talent and depth.  As Mattie says of Felix, “He just kept goin’.”  Felix built, by hand, the beautiful chapel in which Rev. Jackson ministers, and he also fashions his own, simple casket that sharply contrasts with the impersonal, factory-made, silk-lined boxes that occupy Quinn’s Funeral Home.

Get Low, like Big Fish (2003), focuses on the importance of telling our story and the occasional necessity of helping others tell theirs.  The rumors and lies about Felix, along with his friends’ genuine concern for him, ask us whether we can ever really know anyone or not.  Felix has kept his story bottled up inside him for over forty years…he has imprisoned it, much like he has imprisoned himself.  As such, Felix’s first funeral is a transformation from a burdened life into a liberated one that results from storytelling.  This first funeral is one for a broken spirit.

The film also calls into question our relationship to time and how we live our lives in the face of tragedy and loss.  In one scene, Felix talks to Mattie about days gone by and their lives now.  Mattie  says that it seems as if all her old friends are dying off and that she’s just waiting for her name to be called.  Felix tells her that we’re never really waiting…we’re always moving forward, even when we are standing or sitting still.  The world moves under as and, as a result, we move along with it.  Their discussion reminded me of an exchange in Waiting for Godot:

Vladimir:  That passed the time.

Estragon:  It would have passed in any case.

Time and life moves on around us.  It has passed Felix by and is currently running away from Mattie.  While this might ordinarily be a trite sentiment, the gravity of Felix’s situation reminds us that how we choose to pass that time matters.

In the end, Get Low gives the lie to the conservative, evangelical Christian notion that nothing good comes out of Hollywood.  Here, we have what could easily be termed a Christian film, but this film doesn’t need nor specifically want that label (as Duvall has said in interviews about it).  Yet it contains more truth than a host of recent, specifically Christian-produced films could ever hope to convey.

Get Low (100 mins) is rated PG-13 for some thematic material and brief violent content and, unfortunately, has a relatively limited release.  Buy, don’t rent, this when it releases on DVD.