Movie Review: Get Low (2009)

Enthralling character study coming to grips __ 9/10

Frank Quinn: I sold 26 of the ugliest cars in the middle of December with the wind blowing so far up my ass I was farting snowflakes into July.

Frank Quinn: You’ve been wanting a shot at sales. As of right now, you’re on commission. Remember—foot in the door, establish trust, and drop the hammer.
Buddy: I’d rather you go, too.
Frank Quinn: No doubt. But if you don’t do this by yourself, you’ll never know if you’re any good. And you’ll never be good if you don’t know that you are.

Felix Bush: They keep talking about forgiveness. “Ask Jesus for forgiveness.” I never did nothing to him.

Too bad these are the only movie quotes on the IMDb page, because the quote I wanted to present here was from the Frank Quinn character (Bill Murray)—who to my mind provides the main social thread, not to mention the low-key humor, to the enterprise. It’s a quote where he sticks up for himself as a small-town funeral home proprietor, if you will, a salesman (illustrated by the top quote above)… and proud of it. Or at least not ashamed to assert himself to the seemingly moralistic Mr. Felix Bush (Robert Duvall).

Bush is the central character, an odd duck, living a hermit’s life a few miles outside of a small Tennessee town near the Illinois border, approximately 1938. He’s based on a real dude who arranged for his funeral to be performed in his living presence: for a special reason. We’ll avoid spilling the beans on that reason, except to state that when Bush first comes into town and talks to the local minister played by Gerald McRaney (famous from Simon and Simon), he’s turned down for legitimate church sort of reasons. Bush then goes to Frank Quinn… who is more of a businessman, and, as he tells his assistant Buddy (Lucas Black), “nobody’s dying.”

So Quinn agrees and the plans are made. Buddy is a key player in the arrangements, which involve sending out invitations to all the townspeople, indeed, to everyone in the county. Felix Bush, having lived alone out in the boonies for 40 years, has acquired some old habits. For one thing he’s never upgraded to the horseless carriage, and on the few occasions he does go into town he hitches up his mule. His life in the woods is naturalistic, and he’s shown to have a great love for and knowledge of the flora and fauna in his world. We also learn in due course that he’s a master wood crafter and not a bad cook.

Over the period of his hermitage he’s gotten a reputation from the townies, whose children harass him mercilessly. His Keep Out sign is seldom observed. His responses to trespass have not been polite, rather forthright, establishing poor Felix as a scary guy. He is careful never to harm the children, but he isn’t concerned about their feelings either. So there are a lot of stories about him, most of them exaggerated by fear and ignorance. Who is this man, what do we know of him, what do the people in the town and in the county know of him, really?

The film answers that question via putting together his exceptional funeral celebration, and through the relationships he develops with Frank Quinn, with Buddy, and especially with Mattie Darrow (Sissy Spacek) whom he has known in life before his isolation. At one time Mattie was Felix’s girlfriend; she has returned to the town coincidentally just as he is orchestrating the funeral plan; clearly they still have feelings for each other. Felix has had little human contact and nothing of female companionship for several decades, it’s a bit much for him. Through the communications between the two—certainly a pair of the finest actors of our generation—we learn some key pieces to Felix’s puzzle.

Get Low is a work of art in which the story unfolds through the succession of these interactions. The relationship between Felix and Quinn is plain and simple, based on what Felix has the moral impulse to do and how Quinn needs to take advantage of the economic opportunity. We learn they are both moral men, in quite different ways; their growing friendship is solid but always wary. Bush is in the driver’s seat because of the wad of cash he has to spend, and he prefers to deal with young Buddy, Quinn’s assistant. Buddy is as idealistic and morally upright as Quinn is opportunistic.

Felix Bush to Buddy: For every one like me, there’s one like you, son. I about forgot that.

Buddy is the son that Felix never had, and Lucas Black is perfect for the part. Part of the film is a subtext about how Buddy, an ordinary fellow, threads his way toward resolving his moral dilemmas, balancing the financial needs of his young family with doing the right thing by Felix. Just as we find Felix’s character coming out of the ice with Mattie, we see Felix becoming more and more fond of, more and more human with Buddy. Then to wind things up, Bush visits another good friend from the old days, Rev. Charlie Jackson (Bill Cobbs). Here, and through the later conversations between Felix and Mattie, we begin to glimpse ‘the reason.’

This movie was a labor of love for the first-time director and the writers and the producer; be sure to watch the extras on the DVD. It took something like nine years to finally come to fruition. It’s not a piece that fits into the standard fare of Hollywood. The period elements are perfectly arrayed, and the pace of the story is as refreshing as the rhythm of the seasons in the Old South. The score offers a genuine complement, including much SunFLOWerenchanting work from Alison Krauss and her inimitable Union Station band. I feel it should have been considered for several Oscars, but it was one of those films sadly overlooked by the system.

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