Grave Doubts

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“Get Low” is about as close to perfect as a movie can get. It has mystery, romance, danger, comedy, beautiful cinematography, great characterization, and a wonderful story. Its muted sepia-brown palette and rich natural lighting contribute to its somber 1930s atmosphere. Most of all, it has Robert Duvall.

Duvall began his film career as Boo Radley, the ghostlike title character hiding behind the bedroom door in the final scene of “To Kill a Mockingbird” (1962). In the 1970s he hit the big time with roles in the award-winning “Godfather” series and big-budget films such as “Network” and “Apocalypse Now.” Who can forget his iconic line, “I love the smell of napalm in the morning”? Duvall used the fame (and money) he earned from those films to produce films he really cared about — thoughtful, character-driven movies such as “Tender Mercies” (1983), “The Apostle”(1997), and “Crazy Heart” 2009 (see my review, April).

“Get Low” may be his best film yet. It is inspired by the true story of Tennessee hermit Felix “Bush” Brazeale, who threw himself a funeral party in 1938, five years before he actually died. The film also owes a little creative debt to Mark Twain. But the story created by Chris Provenzano goes far beyond the narcissistic desire to hear what others might say about one at one’s own funeral. “Get Low” is a story of unresolved guilt, self-imposed atonement, and eventual redemption.

Felix Bush (Duvall) is a grizzled old codger living in self-imposed isolation in a one-room cabin he built for himself. The family graveyard is filled, not with people, but with the remains of his dogs, and he talks by choice only to his mule. Everyone in town has a story to tell about him, and not one of those stories is nice. They are afraid to tell him what they have heard about him, because his anger is swift and his retaliation is physical. “Gossip is the devil’s radio,” one resident explains.

Nevertheless, there is something endearing about this old coot. Like the grandfather in “Heidi” (1937), he is imprisoned by a dark secret that has broken his heart. We know there is something more to him than the neighborhood gossips see. “People believe what they want to believe. They make it up most of the time. Nobody knows what’s really true.” Finding the courage to tell the true story is Felix’s real reason for staging his funeral.

He first goes to the local preacher (Gerald McRaney) and asks to buy a funeral. Instead, Reverend Horton asks him, “Are you right with God?” “I’ve paid,” Felix responds somberly. “You can’t buy forgiveness,” Horton tries to explain. “It’s free. But you do have to ask for it.” These are wise words that would give comfort to most sinners. But Felix doesn’t want comfort. He has been carrying his guilt around like a penance for 40 years.

Felix next turns to the local under- taker, Frank Quinn (Bill Murray). Quinn’s pragmatic approach to business and death and Murray’s perfectly understated delivery provide many comic moments throughout the film. In his first scene he is lamenting how slow business has been. “Not a person has died in weeks!” he complains. “What are the odds of a funeral home going broke?” When his long-suffering assistant, Buddy (Lucas Black) tells him about seeing Felix with a wad of money at the church, Quinn responds gleefully, “Hermit money!”, and the funeral party is underway.

Quinn is a great example of a good businessman. Yes, he is motivated by money, but not by greed. He understands that in the free market both the buyer and the seller gain. Whether he is selling cars or caskets, Quinn knows that in the end, the customer will value the product more, and he will value the cash more. Both walk away happy. Sometimes one or the other will regret his choice later, but that’s part of the free market too. When Buddy worries that people won’t show up for the funeral party and Bush will be disappointed, his wife wisely tells him, “You aren’t responsible for what other people do. Just you.”

While arranging the details of his funeral party, Felix reconnects with recently widowed Mattie (Sissy Spacek), the woman he courted 40 years ago. He hasn’t seen her in all that time, yet she is still beautiful. Spacek is another perfectly cast character. We remember her youthful beauty in such films

as “Carrie,” “Coal Miner’s Daughter,” and “Crimes of the Heart,” films we continue to see on television. Now suddenly she is 30 years older, gray-haired, wrinkled — and radiantly beautiful. We know what Felix sees and feels, because we see and feel it too.

We know that Mattie is somehow connected to Felix’s secret, but not in the expected way; it isn’t about their romance or unrequited love. The mystery of his secret unfolds slowly. He has carried this burden for 40 years, and he isn’t going to reveal it easily. Perhaps, after all this time, he isn’t entirely confident in his own memory. “Right and wrong, good and bad, truth and lie — it’s all tangled up together,” he says at one point. And he’s probably right. Many of us harbor painful memories and stories that, if told from the perspective of other people and their memories, would be completely different.

Who knows what is really true? The gradual revelation of Bush’s sorrow allows us to step inside his heart and experience the anguish of his remorse, substituting our own secret sorrows in the process.

The title of this film has many possible meanings. The most obvious reference is to the funeral itself — getting six feet below the ground. In the church it means humbling oneself enough to seek and receive forgiveness. When Felix first meets with Quinn he says, “Let’s get low — you know, let’s get down to business,” and they talk about the financial arrangements of the funeral party. In the end, I think it’s all of these things. Felix needs to bury the guilt-ridden soul he has become, ask for forgiveness from the one he has wronged, and then get on with the business of life. It takes a wise man to realize this while he’s still living.

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