A Grace Before Dying
Review: Redemptive Themes in Offbeat, Well-Acted Get Low
Funerals are not for the dead, but for the living. The idea that this or that arrangement is what the deceased “would have wanted” may be consoling, but the consolation is ours, not theirs. Even if we console ourselves in view of our own eventual death by preplanning our funeral down to the last detail, the whole business of working out and documenting our wishes and preferences remains our endeavor just so long as we remain among the living. Once the funeral is actually upon us, it no longer belongs to us, but to our survivors. They may or may not follow our wishes, but whether they do or don’t, they do it for themselves, not us.
Get Low is about a man who aims to see his funeral plans properly executed and isn’t about to waste the opportunity in a casket. It’s inspired by the celebrated case of Felix Bushaloo Breazeale — “Uncle Bush” as he was widely known — an eccentric Tennessee backwoodsman who created a media sensation in 1938 and drew crowds numbering in the thousands by throwing himself a “living funeral.”
What would move a man to do such a thing? Death had been on Breazeale’s mind for some time; he had built his own casket the previous year out of a black walnut tree growing on his property. An idle comment from an acquaintance about never knowing what was said at one’s own funeral apparently stuck in his craw. Perhaps Breazeale was worried about what might be said about him after he was gone; 35 years earlier, he had been arrested and imprisoned for murder, and though he was ultimately acquitted, it seems his culpability remained, and remains, an open question.
In Hollywood hands, such material would almost inevitably lead to a story about a larger-than-life sage, a colorfully unconventional outsider with a higher perspective who teaches life lessons to others. One of the pleasures of first-time feature director Aaron Schneider’s spare, offbeat Get Low is the consciously human-scaled stature of Robert Duvall’s fictionalized Felix Bush. I say “consciously” because Duvall’s Felix is aware of his own larger-than-life status in Roane County as a local boogeyman, perhaps even amused by it, but never makes the mistake of believing his own myth.
Many readers have written to me to express their appreciation for another recent film starring a septuagenarian Hollywood icon in a valedictory turn as a shotgun-toting, taciturn recluse facing death with only an animal for a companion while butting heads with clergy as he seeks redemption before dying: Clint Eastwood’s Gran Torino. I hope they all see Get Low. It’s as much a crowd-pleaser, or more, but a better and more spiritual film in virtually every way.
Subtle, quirky and low-key where Gran Torino is obvious and conventional, Get Low doesn’t make its hero the most self-aware character in the film or subordinate everyone else’s story to his. Where Gran Torino gleefully sticks it to Walt Kowalski’s superficial, annoying family members (to say nothing of the predatory villains), Get Low extends empathy to nearly every character.
Though a wily, crusty character, Felix isn’t any wiser, ultimately, than anyone else. He’s a genuinely flawed man — even a crippled one, both emotionally and spiritually — living under the shadow of something in his past for which he has punished himself for decades without finding peace. Unlike Eastwood’s Walt, Felix contends with a number of formidable characters who are essentially his match: Frank Quinn, an opportunistic funeral home proprietor (Bill Murray); Mattie Darrow, a spirited but vulnerable widow from his past (Sissy Spacek); and a pastor (or two) well able to put Felix in his place, and who will certainly not be reduced, in the last reel, to ritually humbling himself before the wisdom of the old man who taught him everything he knows.
Get Low was not written for Duvall, as Gran Torino was not written for Eastwood, but both films resonate with their stars’ histories. Walt Kowalski recalls previous Eastwood roles in the Dirty Harry movies, Unforgiven and Million Dollar Baby, among others. Likewise, Felix Bush echoes Duvall’s characters in The Apostle, Tender Mercies and even To Kill a Mockingbird. In keeping with the retrospective vibe of both films, third-act confession scenes feature prominently in both films.
But Get Low takes guilt, punishment and forgiveness seriously in a way that Gran Torino doesn’t. There’s a reason the baby-faced priest’s response to Walt’s confession is “That’s it?” It’s the same response that Felix makes to Buddy Robinson (Lucas Black), Frank Quinn’s junior partner in the funeral business, when Buddy ventures that he once heard that Felix killed two men in a fist fight. Felix’s sins are knottier, tied up in the sins of others, with love and hate, remorse and rationalization, inextricably intertwined. What’s more, all his efforts to pay for his sins are futile. Unlike Walt, whose sacrificial final act is given Christological overtones, Felix can’t save himself — or anyone else.
Spacek’s Maddie, who has a history with Felix, smilingly tells someone how interesting Felix was “a thousand years ago” — that where others were like open books, he was “like a cave” with unguessed depths. Then an unexpected glimpse of what was in those depths — what is still there — leaves her reeling.
Murray’s Frank Quinn provides a sort of backbeat to the mystery of Felix. Frank is a riddle himself, a man who seems bemused to find himself in the funeral business rather than one who chose that path, and who brings to his current business a dodgy history as a car salesman and even a street vendor selling watches pinned to his coat lining. A living funeral is right up his alley, but Murray doesn’t stop there: He makes Frank so self-absorbed and self-aware that he sees Felix as a color character in his story, rather than the other way around. Frank tosses out nuggets about his past as needed, the reliability of which may be open to doubt, but there seems little doubt that if we knew more about him, it could make for a movie as poignant as Get Low.
Felix and Frank’s mutual gamesmanship wraps round and round until Buddy protests, “I don’t know who’s selling what to who any more.” Buddy is the straight man to these two loonies, in more ways than one. With Felix and Frank so eager to sell each other, someone has to be scandalized — has to object that you can’t have a funeral unless you’re, you know, deceased. But he’s also the one with an actual life: a wife, a baby. A baby in a movie that’s just part of life — that isn’t a plot point or a punch line — is rare enough to be refreshing; a mother breast-feeding, also just part of life, doubly so.
Then there’s Bill Cobbs as Rev. Charlie Jackson, the same sort of avuncular, deep but distant black preacher that John Beasley portrayed in The Apostle. Charlie, like Maddie, is part of Felix’s distant past, and he remembers him fondly, but he won’t condone or accept Felix’s attempts to engineer redemption on his own terms.
Longtime cinematographer Aaron Schneider imbues his directorial debut with visual richness, accenting the period accoutrements and sylvan landscapes with golden light and velvet darkness. Period tunes, along with dobro and guitar-inflected riffs, highlight the score, enhancing the sense of time and place.
Get Low’s key virtue is its low-key restraint. It might have benefited, in the end, from an extra dash of boldness. The original proposal for the living funeral involved bringing people together to share tales about Roane County’s storied hermit. That the center of gravity shifts elsewhere makes sense, but more of the original idea should have been retained. The idea of hearing what is actually said at one’s funeral is too potent to underplay, as Get Low ultimately does.
The low-key living funeral could also have benefited from some of The Apostle’s religious showmanship — some Gospel music and a real sermon — like the real Uncle Bush’s actual living funeral. I don’t mind that the filmmakers recast their protagonist as a stranger to faith (the real Uncle Bush faithfully attended Cave Creek Baptist Church, where the funeral was held). I give them credit, too, for allowing their clergymen to articulate a Christian perspective of grace and forgiveness, at least in private discussion. In the end, though, if Duvall’s character wanted a preacher at his funeral, he should have gotten one.
These are forgivable misses in a film with a lot of grace and humanity. Amid the tangled narrative that Felix has made of his life is a startlingly countercultural notion, almost foreign to Hollywood cinema: Love, by itself, is not enough. Just because you love someone does not mean you can or should have them in this lifetime — not even if they love you back. Love may bear and forgive all things, but it does not justify or excuse all things.
There is a tragedy in Get Low, but there is also a tragedy that could have been and wasn’t: a crime that Felix wanted to commit, but was not allowed to get away with. He was deprived of the happy ending he wanted, and, in the end, he came, albeit by tortuous paths, to the one he needed.
CONTENT ADVISORY: A brief scene of violence; references to an adulterous relationship and an act of murderous violence; at least one instance of profanity; other mature themes, especially relating to death and burial. Teens and up.